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MTV ‘True Life Crime’ host reinvents genre

Dometi Pongo puts focus on victims of anti-LGBTQ violence

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Dometi Pongo hosts MTV’s ‘True Life Crime.’ (Photo courtesy MTV)

The last place most of us would expect to find a true crime show is on MTV. Yet that’s exactly where you’ll find “True Life Crime” and its host Dometi Pongo, who on Aug. 24 will take a journalistic deep dive into the Mississippi murder of trans teen Mercedes Williamson – just one of the brutal, tragic stories covered by the show since its debut in 2020.

They are the kinds of stories, of course, that make fans of the genre eagerly stay up late to binge watch old episodes of “Cold Case Files” or the latest Netflix serial murderer doc. But while those shows content themselves with being a guilty pleasure for their viewers, this one aims a little higher.

To begin with, it primarily covers violence against people from marginalized communities; and though it examines facts and evidence, those take a back seat to discussion of the social issues around the crimes. Instead of placing all the emphasis on the “how” and “who,” the show puts it on the “why,” taking the spotlight from the killer and shining it on the victim instead – a far cry from the kind of truncated treatment usually bestowed by mainstream news sources when covering crimes against marginalized people.

Pongo – a charismatic host whose passion for amplifying the stories of marginalized communities is tied to his roots in Chicago’s south side – spoke to the Blade about the intentions behind the show, and the need to include the stories of LGBTQ victims.

BLADE: Besides the upcoming episode about Mercedes, this season has already covered two other cases involving anti-LGBTQ violence: the murders of Britney Cosby and Crystal Jackson, who were a lesbian couple, and Muhlaysia Booker, a trans woman of color. Did you come into the show wanting to bring visibility to these kinds of cases?

DOMETI PONGO: It’s my connection to marginalized communities that made me want to do it, to talk about other marginalized communities that I’m not even a part of, but which deserve a voice as well. I’ll be honest with you, at a high level I understood the dangers of homophobia and transphobia in our communities, but I didn’t know the numbers. I didn’t know how often victims were dead-named, how under-reported anti-trans violence goes. I didn’t realize how deep this really got, until I was in the thick of it, reporting on these issues.

The first season we did the story of Kedarie Johnson, who was a gender-fluid teen that was killed in Iowa. That story really helped to open my eyes, and so for this season we wanted to double down.

BLADE: The show differs from other crime shows because it’s more concerned with exploring motives and issues around the cases than it is about the facts. Is that a conscious choice?

PONGO: There’s a conscious idea of either answering questions that the family never had answered, or looking at elements of the person’s identity, or the world around the crime, and figure out how we can tell a fuller story. You know, in some states they can secure a murder conviction without proving motive, so you can have a family go through the entire litigation process, all the way up to the killer being convicted, and they’ll never know why their loved one was killed. The pain that comes from that is gut-wrenching. So, aside from just taking you through the crime and how the person is caught, what can we add to the conversation that can give some solace to the families?

BLADE: As a host, you bring a lot to the show. You’re great on camera and your passion really shines through – but you always deflect the attention toward the family and the community around the victim.

PONGO: Thank you, I appreciate you noticing that. I’m the lens through which the subject gets to tell their story. If I share something about losses and experiences that I have, it’s because I know that human-to-human connection will help the subject open up. As journalists, we’re told never to become the story – and now we’re in this age where you have to have a social media presence, you have to have some charisma about you, you have to be a host of sorts. But I want to make sure that I’m a human first when I’m talking to these families, and I’m glad if that shines through.

BLADE: It does, and so does the fact that your show doesn’t sensationalize the way others do. There’s nothing tabloid about it.

PONGO: We do want to differentiate ourselves. Why would you come to MTV for a true crime story rather than other networks that have been doing them for years? We’ve got to put our bent on it. We’re focused on talking to young folks who live in the pop culture space, and the “True Life” franchise is the perfect avenue for that, because it’s all about the true lives of the subjects, and we wanted to be sure that that was highlighted.

BLADE: The focus on social justice issues certainly gives the show a youthful perspective.

PONGO: They say the young have the energy, and the elders have the wisdom, and we want to arm the energy of these young people – these bright, action-oriented young people who mobilized with the racial reckoning of 2020, who are leading the charge – we want to arm them with context and information about more stories, and how everything in our society kind of folds into what happens. Many of our episodes end with a call to action. Who do you call to change this law? Who do you email? As effective a tool social media is, so is voting, so is emailing legislators, so is getting involved in advocacy groups. We arm our audience with the information that they need to keep doing the great work they’re doing.

BLADE: It’s really activism taking the form of entertainment.

PONGO: That’s it, 100 percent. I started out at a Black-owned radio station on the South Side of Chicago. Al Sharpton held the afternoon slot for his show, each host was very community oriented, so I cut my teeth at that intersection of information and social justice – but I’m also a fan of hip-hop, I’m a fan of music, so when I’m not doing “True Life Crime” I’m doing MTV News interviews with my favorite artists. Investigating that intersection of social justice and pop culture is where I think a lot of our power lies. I think that’s where the young people are sitting right now.

BLADE: What do you hope they take away from these stories?

PONGO: If there’s anything that I want people to take away it’s this: After the show, whatever social justice issue we talk about, research it. Dig into it. That guilty pleasure feels a little bit less guilty if you do the work after that TV cuts off. 

“True Life Crime” airs on MTV at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays. All past episodes are available to watch on the MTV website.

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Television

Father & Trans son musical duo make history on NBC’s ‘The Voice’

“I do have a special connection to the concept of a Blind Audition where the only thing that matters is the art and who the person is inside”

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Jim and Sasha Allen performing on NBC's The Voice, Sept. 21, 2021 (Screenshot via NBC)

BURBANK – The unique folksy blend of the voices in a sweet rendition of the John Denver classic song “Leaving on a Jet Plane” this week on NBC’s The Voice, caused celebrity judges Kelly Clarkson and Ariana Grande to mash their buttons and turn their chairs around and face the performance.

Unbeknownst to the entire panel of judges, which also includes John Legend and Blake Shelton, they were witnessing a bit of history for the reality musical talent search television show. On stage was 57-year-old music teacher Jim Allen and his son Sasha- the moment was groundbreaking as the 19-year-old teen singer is a Trans male.

In the pre-performance video profile, the younger Allen reflected “I do have a special connection to the concept of a Blind Audition, where the only thing that matters is the art and who the person is inside.” Allen went on to detail more of his background; “I was born female, and I never felt comfortable, and it ate away at me the more I grew up.”

The pair from Newtown, Connecticut have an obvious deep bond. Referring to his kid, the elder Allen said: ““It’s a parent’s job to listen to your child, even when it’s hard to understand them,” he then added. “And that brought forth extreme sadness at not having understood what he had been going through for years. […] While it is such a big and extraordinary thing to absorb, there are fundamental things that don’t change about a person. And it’s nice to be at that point where, you know, it’s not a big deal.”

Jim and Sasha Allen (Screenshot via NBC)

“I remember at night just laying in bed and thinking, ‘If I could just wake up as a completely different person, I would do it. I would give up everything I have to be able to live in peace and live comfortably without being tormented internally.’ I used to write in notebooks, ‘I feel like a boy. I want this so bad.’ And I’d shred it up into such tiny pieces, because I was so scared for anybody to know,” the younger Allen shared.

“The only way to feel like me was to transition to male. I dealt with a lot of hateful comments, whether it was from my classmates or from teachers. I wouldn’t have been able to get through high school without music and without art to express what I was going through,” he said.

Duo Jim and Sasha Allen Sing John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” | The Voice Blind Auditions 2021:

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Television

Plenty of queer storylines headed to the small screen

New TV season offers comedy, drama, horror, and more

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A scene from the third season of ‘Sex Education.’ (Photo courtesy Netflix)

Even though the Age of Streaming has reshaped the television landscape in a way that makes the “New Fall TV Season” more or less a thing of the past, it still feels only natural to take a look at the new shows headed for our home screens each September. And since LGBTQ+ stories and characters are ever more abundant in the mix, that means there are plenty of upcoming offerings worth highlighting. In that spirit, here’s the Blade’s list of LGBTQ content included among the fresh programming making its debut over the next few months.

The Premise (Sept. 16):

This anthology series from FX, created and hosted by B.J. Novak, is a half-hour anthology series of character-driven episodes “about the times we live in.” Promising to “challenge our shared morality” as it “engages with the most relevant and meaningful issues of the modern era,” it blends comedy and drama as it tackles subjects like guns, identity, social justice, sex, capitalism, revenge, love, fame, social media, and butt plugs. It makes our list because one episode, written by Jia Tolentino and Novak, features a lesbian couple (Lola Kirke and Soko) whose relationship is threatened when one of them becomes obsessed with a negative online comment about her appearance. Still, the impressive list of actors appearing in the various episodes – including Lucas Hedges, Kaitlyn Dever, Jon Bernthal, Ben Platt, Tracee Ellis Ross, Daniel Dae Kim, Lola Kirke, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Soko, George Wallace, Jermaine Fowler, Ayo Edebiri, Boyd Holbrook, Eric Lange, Beau Bridges, and the late Ed Asner – makes it worth tuning in for the whole thing.

Sex Education (Sept. 17):

Returning to Netflix for its third season is this queer fan favorite from writer/creator Laurie Nunn about the misadventures of a backward English teen and his bad-girl secret crush as they run a covert sex counseling service at their strict-and-stuffy school. This season sees Otis (Asa Butterfield), while his REAL sex therapist mother (the delicious Gillian Anderson) prepares for the arrival of an unexpected mid-life baby, his gay best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) officially becomes a couple with former bully Adam (Conner Swindells), and a new head teacher (Jemima Kirke) tries to return the school to a pillar of excellence. Meanwhile, his lost voicemail to Maeve (Emma Mackey) still looms over their relationship. Other new cast members include Jason Isaacs, Indra Ové, and recording artist/songwriter Dua Saleh in their acting debut as a new nonbinary classmate. 

The Big Leap (Sept. 20): 

From Fox comes this Liz Heldens-created musical dramedy series based on a British reality show. A modern tale about “second chances, chasing your dreams and taking back what’s yours,” it revolves around a group of diverse, down-on-their-luck characters attempting to change their lives by participating in a potentially life-ruining reality dance show featuring a modern reimagining of “Swan Lake.” Several LGBTQ characters are in the mix. The cast includes Scott Foley (“Scandal”), Teri Polo (“Meet the Parents” franchise), Piper Perabo (“Covert Affairs,” “Coyote Ugly”), newcomer Simone Recasner, Ser’Darius Blain (“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”), Jon Rudnitsky (“Catch-22”), Raymond Cham Jr. (“Five Points”), Mallory Jansen (“Galavant”), Kevin Daniels (“Twelfth Night,” “Modern Family”) and Anna Grace Barlow (“The Goldbergs”).

Our Kind of People (Sept. 21)

Also from Fox is this large-looming new series from writer and executive producer Karin Gist (“Star,” “Grey’s Anatomy”) and executive producer Lee Daniels (“Empire,” “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday”), inspired by Lawrence Otis Graham’s provocative, critically acclaimed book, “Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class.” Set in the aspirational world of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, where the rich and powerful Black elite come to play, it follows a single mom determined to reclaim her family’s name with her revolutionary new haircare line for Black women. When a dark secret about her own mother’s past comes to light, her world is turned upside-down and the prestigious community is shaken forever. A soapy exploration of race and class in America that celebrates Black resilience and achievement, this one gives off serious “Dynasty” vibes, which would be more than enough to give it queer appeal even without the inclusion of several LGBTQ characters and storylines. Starring Yaya DaCosta (“Chicago Med,” “Whitney”), Morris Chestnut (THE RESIDENT), Joe Morton (“Scandal”), Nadine Ellis (“Let’s Stay Together”), Lance Gross (“Hawaii 5-0”), Rhyon Nicole Brown (“Empire”), Kyle Bary (“Ginny & Georgia”) and newcomer Alana Bright.

Dear White People (Sept. 22)

The fourth and final season of this popular queer-inclusive Netflix series, created by writer/producer/director Justin Simien and based on his own 2014 indie film of the same name, threw its fans a surprise by revealing the show’s last volume would be “an Afro-futuristic and ’90s-inspired musical event.” According to the official description, it is set “against the backdrop of senior year at Winchester as well as a not-so-distant, post-pandemic future,” and “finds our characters looking back at the most formative (and theatrical) year of their lives.” The series stars Logan Browning, Brandon P. Bell, Antoinette Robertson, DeRon Horton, John Patrick Amedori, Ashley Blaine Featherson, and Marque Richardson.

Nuclear Family (Sept. 26)

HBO Max brings us this three-part docuseries, which follows filmmaker Ry Russo-Young as she turns the camera on her own past to explore “the extraordinary story of a first-generation lesbian family.” Born to two lesbian mothers through sperm donors in an era when the concept of a gay family was inconceivable to most, Russo-Young and her sister Cade had their childhood disrupted by an unexpected lawsuit attacking their family’s very right to exist. The resulting court battle ended in a landmark legal decision that would change the way gay families were perceived forever. The series not only explores the judicial conflict, but investigates the ambitions and desires of the two moms, the sperm donor, and all their allies and enemies, as it “proposes a way of understanding conflict that resonates with anyone who struggles with issues unresolved within their own families, their own lives, and in our broader world.”

Finally, in honor of LGBTQ History Month, the queer streaming network Revry is offering a slate of must-see LGBTQ-oriented documentaries throughout October. Highlights include: “Happy Birthday, Marsha,” about trans icon and activist Marsha P. Johnson; “Vintage: Families of Value,” a groundbreaking look at queer siblings in families of color; “49 Pulses,” an examination of the tragic mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in 2016; “Light in the Water,” documenting the origins and life of West Hollywood Aquatics, the first openly gay masters swim team; “Call Me Troy,” about Metropolitan Community Church founder Reverend Troy Perry; and “Dykes, Camera, Action,” profiling the work of several pioneering lesbian filmmakers. In addition, they’re offering a fun collection of queer Halloween treats, including the short film “Magic H8 Ball,” in which a heartbroken nice guy burned by a cheating boyfriend risks his soul when he turns to a Magic 8 Ball for answers, and “Sinful,” a horror movie about a newlywed gay couple who commit a horrific crime and find themselves trapped in a mysterious house. Given the woeful shortage of queer Halloween programming, these titles alone make it worth signing up for the service.

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Television

New films feature gay superhero, Tammy Faye, and feel-good drag

Cumberbatch takes on another gay role in ‘Power of the Dog’

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‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ is the feel-good queer movie of the season. (Photo courtesy Amazon)

It’s fall again, and that means it’s time to look forward to the things we love about this time of the year – and no, I’m not talking about pumpkin spice. I’m referring, of course, to the new movies headed our way, and there are quite a few this year that should be of interest to LGBTQ+ viewers. Fortunately, as usual, the Blade is here to help you plan your own must-see list for the season with the help of our handy guide below.

Giddy Stratospheres (Sept.14): If you’re a movie fan who also has a taste for musical nostalgia, this gritty love letter to the indie music scene of the 2000s from writer/director Laura Jean Marsh is definitely for you. Shot entirely during lockdown in the UK, it follows a pair of indie kids and best friends (Jamal Franklin and Marsh herself) as they party their nights away on a quest for the ultimate in hedonistic euphoria and excitement. If memories of donning boots, ripped tights, and eyeliner for a night at the club aren’t enough, there’s also a fabulously queer leading character and soundtrack featuring a smorgasbord of retro hits from the likes of Franz Ferdinand, The Futureheads, The Walkmen, Le Tigre, The Rapture, Art Brut, The Cribs, Black Wire, The Rocks, Theoretical Girl, Pink Grease and more. Available via VOD now.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (Sept. 17): Delayed due to COVID but finally here is this bubbling and buzzy film version of the hit West End musical by Tom MacRae, inspired by a 2011 television documentary, in which a gay 16-year-old named Jamie New (Max Harwood) overcomes teasing, bullying, and a complicated home life to realize his dream of becoming a drag queen – with help from a loyal best friend (Lauren Patel), a supportive mom (Sarah Lancashire), and an aging drag mentor named Loco Chanel (Richard E. Grant). Translated to the screen by original stage director Jonathan Butterell and adapted into a screenplay by MacRae himself, it’s won early praise by critics for its “infectious” spirit and is probably the odds-on favorite to be the feel-good queer movie of the season. With Shobna Gulati, Ralph Ineson, Samuel Bottomley, Sharon Horgan, and Charlotte Salt, it also features a cameo from Roy Haylock (better known as Bianca Del Rio, of course), who played the role of Loco Chanel onstage. VOD and streaming on Amazon Prime.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Sept. 17): Like the now-classic documentary of the same name, this much-anticipated biopic is an intimate look at the extraordinary rise, fall and redemption of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, who with her husband Jim Bakker created the world’s largest religious broadcasting network before financial improprieties, scheming rivals, and scandal toppled their carefully constructed empire. Legendary for her indelible eyelashes, her idiosyncratic singing, and her eagerness to embrace people from all walks of life, she went on to become an unlikely but beloved LGBTQ icon, vocally supporting the community and helping to reduce stigma around AIDS through the platform afforded by her celebrity. Directed by Michael Showalter, it stars Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye, with Andrew Garfield as Jim and a supporting cast including Cherry Jones, Fredric Lehne, Louis Cancelmi, Sam Jaeger, Gabriel Olds, Mark Wystrach, and Vincent D’Onofrio. In Theaters.

On the Fringe of Wild (Oct. 13)

In this Canadian import set in the early 2000s, a sensitive and shy small town teen named Peter runs away from his homophobic father during a hunting trip designed to “make him a man.” Lost in the cold Ontario wilderness, he meets Jack – another teen on the run from his toxic family – and a romance buds between them as they hide away in a secluded cabin; when they are inevitably pulled back into the real world, they’re forced to confront their sexuality, their mental health, and the oppressive home life that threatens to drive them apart. Directed by Emma Caralfamo from a bleak but hopeful screenplay by Sorelle Doucet, it features trans actor Harrison Browne as Peter and Cameron Stewart as Jack, with Mikael Melo, Andrew Bee, Audrey Nesbitt, Bernadette Medhurst, Andrea Pavlovic, and Adam Jenner in support. VOD.

Eternals (Nov. 5)

Marvel Studios gets a jump on the holiday blockbuster rush with the long-awaited (and long-delayed) release of this new addition to their comics-to-screen franchise, an epic and ensemble-centered action fantasy that introduces, among other characters, Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos – the first openly gay superhero to be depicted in a Marvel film. It even promises an onscreen kiss between Tyree and Haaz Sleiman, who portrays Phastos’ husband. We’ll take a wait-and-see attitude on whether or not it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. Directed by Oscar winner Chloé Zhao, it has an all-star cast that includes Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kit Harrington, Salma Hayak, Kumail Nanjiani, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, and Angelina Jolie.

Isaac (Nov. 16):

Coming from Spain is this debut feature from writer/directors Angeles Hernández and David Matamoros, adapted from a stage play by Antonio Hernández Centeno and centered on two friends named Nacho and Isaac, who had an intense relationship as teens and meet again by chance after 20 years. Nacho, now financially successful and trying to have a baby with his wife Marta, proposes an arrangement with struggling entrepreneur Denis and his partner Carmen: If they will provide the “surrogate belly” for Marta’s pregnancy, he will give them the money they need to open their gourmet restaurant. The deal, of course, opens the door for a lot of resurfaced feelings that forces the two men to discover themselves at the risk of losing the apparent stability they now have. Starring Pepe Ocio and Iván Sánchez (who won the Best Actor prize for his performance as Nacho at the 2020 Malaga Film Festival), it also features Maria Ribera, Erika Bleda, and Nacho San José. VOD.

The Power of the Dog (Nov. 17):

Squeaking in just before the holiday season is this adaptation of the 1967 Thomas Savage novel by the same name, directed by renowned filmmaker Jane Campion and starring screen heavyweights Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst. Set in 1925 Montana, it’s a character-driven drama in which a brutal but charismatic rancher (Cumberbatch) finds his life disrupted when his brother (Jesse Plemons) brings a new wife (Dunst) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) home to the ranch. At first cold and cruel, he begins to take his new step-nephew under his wing, and a relationship begins to form that opens up memories of a buried past and awakens him to the possibilities of love. On the one hand, it’s garnered predictable controversy over the casting of the straight-identifying Cumberbatch in a high-profile queer role (his second after playing Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”) – but on the other, it’s one of the best-reviewed upcoming films on the slate so far. In addition, Campion is a cinematic master whose work here won her the Silver Lion for directing at this year’s Venice Film Festival, so it’s worth taking that into consideration before you decide to give this one a pass. In theaters.

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