Us opened last weekend to a mammoth $70.2 million,
becoming the highest opening original horror movie and biggest ever opening for
a film with a black female lead. What’s
more, Us, Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his Oscar winning instant classic Get Out, is just plain awesome. It’s a fun, immersive, thoughtful spectacular
that just happens to center on an African American family. It’s as if Jordan Peele is shrugging, saying,
“I make outstanding horror films with black leads, NBD” while his doppelganger
is brandishing a pair of golden scissors and shrieking “it’s a very big deal.”
Us opens with a bizarre opening title sequence—Get Out composer Michael Abels provides an even better score here—that won’t make any sense until much later in the narrative. Then there’s an excellent 1986 set sequence on the Santa Cruz boardwalk, wherein a little girl wanders away from her squabbling parents and encounters her mirror image in a spooky funhouse. Flash forward to the present: the Wilsons are a middle class family headed to their vacation house. Gabe (Winston Duke) is an endearingly goofy dad. Jason (Evan Alex) is an oddball kid with an affinity for Halloween masks and magic tricks. Sister Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) is a high school running star alternately amused and annoyed by most of her family, aka every teenage girl ever. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o, transcendent) is a fiercely protective mother who anchors the clan, but something’s bothering her. That was her in the funhouse, and she’s intensely triggered by this return. It doesn’t spoil anything to say that her doppelganger soon arrives with copies of the entire family in tow; mayhem ensues. Anyone who gives away more than that deserves to dine on raw rabbit.
The construction of Us is exquisite. Portents of doom and symbolism abound, from the Biblical quote to the mirror imagery everywhere you look. The Wilsons’ friends, the Tylers, are a parallel family. Two parents, two kids: white/black, rich/not so rich, happy/deeply dysfunctional. (As boozy mom Kitty, Elisabeth Moss gets to show off her acting chops—though no one can hold a candle to Lupita here.) There are clues and winks saturating the movie, but Peele isn’t showing off. He’s just inviting you to immerse yourself in his world. He beckons the audience into his nightmare kingdom as surely as the characters are drawn into that funhouse. At the risk of belaboring a point, Us truly is a funhouse; while Get Out was deadly serious, this movie is a thrill ride, leavened with humor and as enjoyable as it is creepy.
For the past week, I’ve been debating this movie with friends. Does the mythology make sense? Are there plot holes? Is it overrated, poorly written, etc., etc.? I’ve engaged with the conversations—it’s the kind of movie you should see with friends, and plan to talk about over coffee or cocktails immediately afterward. But I remain unshaken in my conviction that this is an extremely well made, imaginative, and entertaining film that is destined to become a classic. Peele displays such complete command of his craft, from script to camera to lighting to the inspired choice of songs: Janelle Monae and N.W.A. are among the standouts. All of the performers turn in excellent work. Everything you’ve heard about Nyong’o is true. She is utterly remarkable as Adelaide and her scissors-loving “Tethered” counterpart, Red. If there was any justice in the world, she would be nominated for an Oscar for this movie, but the Academy will probably snub her. No matter. She makes this movie, aptly supported by the entire cast. Duke is endearing and truly outstanding in his own right. He’s also one of the sexiest bears I’ve seen onscreen in a long while. (Add unconventional body types to the Hollywood standards this movie casually upends.) He and the kids are adept at vividly portraying their sinister “shadows,” too.
We already knew Jordan Peele was one to watch. This terrific movie only serves to confirm
it, and as a horror fan, I’m thrilled to have a new master to follow—especially
one slicing through barriers.
“I’m just saying if you’re gonna have three out of the witches, you need four, don’tcha?” actress Rachel True asked, referring to the controversy that erupted when she went public about an unnamed convention inviting all three female leads in The Craft–except her. “Sounds about white,” she tweeted dryly. “I’m very happy to be here with my whole cast,” she declared. “I’m delighted to be here with the whole cast. I am.”
True talked to me at Monster-Mania 42, “the semi-annual Philadelphia Horror Film & Memorabilia Convention,” which invited her to join Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, and Neve Campbell for a Craft reunion at their March event shortly after the snub story broke. The coven proved to be one of the weekend’s biggest draws. There’s always a preponderance of Goths and geeks at the convention, of course, but the Craft ladies brought them out in force. Much of the crowd seemed to exemplify Balk’s famous line “We are the weirdoes, mister.” I told a woman in line with me that her outfit was appropriately witchy. “Oh!” she replied. “This is just what I wear all the time.” Elsewhere, cosplayers embodied a mix of horror icons like The Haunting of Hill House’s “Bent Neck Lady” and a gender-swapped Ash (from Evil Dead) and comics universe characters like Batgirl and Gotham’s Oswald Cobblepot.
The weekend marked the one year anniversary of a near
disastrous event wherein the combination of big names like Tim Curry, Paul
Reubens, Richard Dreyfuss, and the young stars of It (2017) drew crowds far past the capacity of the Cherry Hill, NJ
Crown Plaza Hotel. The fire department
intervened, limiting Saturday admittance, shutting down a tent meant to host
panels, and leaving droves of fans either left out in the cold (literally) or
just plain ticked off. To its credit,
the organizers have since taken steps to strictly limit sales to reasonable
capacity, meaning advance tickets are pretty much a must—but the precautions
have paid off in avoiding a similar debacle.
I went on the comparably quieter Sunday this time, and although I heard
the day before was packed, it didn’t sound anything like the previous year.
The Con drew a wide assortment of guests, including two other notable African American actors: Jibrail Nantambu, who stole the show with his hilarious, heavily improvised performance in Halloween (2018), and Eugene Clark, the imposing actor who memorably played “Big Daddy,” the leader of the zombies in George Romero’s Land of the Dead. There was also Dylan McDermott, hunky star of American Horror Story and the 1990 scifi thriller Hardware, original Michael Myers Nick Castle and 2018 version James Jude Courtney, 80s hearththrob Dolph Lundgren (He-Man in the camp classic Masters of the Universe), and Meatloaf! (Christina Ricci was only there through Saturday, so I missed her. Le sigh.)
Also in attendance was Ashlee Blackwell, founder of the scholarly
website Graveyard Shift Sisters (graveyardshiftsisters.com) and co-writer/producer
of the excellent Horror Noire: A History
of Black Horror, currently streaming on Shudder. I watched the film to prepare for meeting True,
who appears throughout the movie’s brisk 83 minute runtime. The actress joins everyone from Candyman Tony Todd to Get Out director Jordan Peele to discuss
the history of black representation and contributions to horror, with plenty of
illuminating insights throughout. “It’s
so good, isn’t it?” True enthused. “Tell
your white friends to watch it, because I think people think it’s only for
Black [people]—it’s not, if you like horror, this is a great documentary,
right?” I agreed that it was, and
mentioned how passionately Geeks OUT believes in representation. “I’m
really big on representation!” True responded, adding pointedly, “I’m
here. I’m happy to be here.”
Eliza and Nate Dushku are like a lot of siblings-their words overlap, and they’re obviously close-except both happen to be very good-looking (seriously, what is with their family’s genes?) and have spent a lifetime acting and now producing in film and television. Their latest collaboration, Mapplethorpe, directed by Ondi Timoner and starring Dr. Who‘s Matt Smith as the eponymous enfant terrible, is now open in limited release after a run at Tribeca Film Festival last spring.
The Dushkus endear themselves to me early on. Nate is wearing a high school jacket recently unearthed by their mom. Like Eliza’s famous Buffy the Vampire Slayer character Faith, the two grew up in the Boston area, where I was attending college when I first discovered her. Eliza apologizes unnecessarily for grabbing food before joining us at Tribeca’s posh Roxy Hotel. As I watch her start in on some chicken wings, I think, “Slayers… They’re just like us!” I’ve just seen Mapplethorpe and am eager to discuss the film. It turns out I was a freshman at Emerson when the Dushkus first started development.
“This one was just something that really spoke to me when Nate sent the script to me in 2002,” Eliza professes. “It’s been a long time. Just with Mapplethorpe being such a boundary pusher and such a fascinating artist, and … the art that he made and the person that he was sort of being in contradiction. You know the controversy about him but then there was such humanity in him, too, and I feel like it was just exciting for us to tell that story.”
“It’s not easy getting an independent film financed and shot in New York City anyway,” Nate states, “and an artist that’s this controversial, whose work was censored … trying to put this out into the mainstream, we knew there were going to be challenges. But Robert was an icon not just to artists but… he’s not Lady Gaga, he’s not Ru Paul, he’s his own [thing]-but he came before, in many ways, those people were influenced by him and-“
“He forged a path, you know?” Eliza chimes in.
“He forged a path,” Nate agrees, “and it’s really cool to be holding his legacy.”
It’s a responsibility the pair took seriously through every aspect of production, which recreates three decades convincingly through music, wardrobe, and a vast number of locations. The cast, led by Smith, was more than up to the job.
“[Matt] was so prepared, every day, even towards the end, he got really sick, he got some kind of bug-and he just plowed through it,” Eliza gushes. “He really just embodied the character, the way he improvised, the way he would interact with the other characters, it was extraordinary to watch, you know. Lucky to have him.”
Nate agrees, explaining that the screenplay’s time span presented some unique challenges: “In maybe one day, you’d be doing a scene from the 60s and also a scene from the 80s.”
“In one location,” Eliza adds.
“It’s like, ‘you’re dying! You’re 18 years old, you moved out to New York City. It’s the mid-70s…'” Nate recalls. These drastic shifts also extended to the actor’s hairstyle: “We had Wigmageddon,” Eliza jokes, “there were a lot of wigs on the actors.”
Photo by Andrew Toth
Smith’s costars also impressed the duo. “Marianne [Rendon], she read for the role and it was like, there’s real life young Patti [Smith], in the flesh,” Nate declares. He also has kind words for newcomer Brandon Sklenar (Edward Mapplethorpe) and veteran actor John Benjamin Hickey (Robert’s lover Sam Wagstaff). “[Brandon’s] playing opposite Matt, and we just needed somebody who could go pound for pound with him,” Nate explains. “John Benjamin Hickey is another story, he’s a pro, he’s been doing this for a long time, but that was great to see [him and Smith] come together. Every single actor just humanized the role and just gave it levels.”
This being the Robert Mapplethorpe story, there’s considerable nudity and sexual content in the film. This wasn’t a problem in the acting realm, at least. The actors “responded really well,” Eliza states. “We sent them the script, we sent them the material-it’s a choice, even for me as an actor, and everyone who came and knew what the movie was and knew what the artist was, and we were really impressed with the performances. And in terms of the extras in the sex dungeon [sequence], yeah there are a lot of rules in SAG, and protections and things. Some of them came in their own wardrobe.” Eliza says many of the background performers came from the leather and kink community, and credits Central Casting with finding them all. “Central Casting, they have been around forever and they put their own people on it,” Nate elaborates. “They were so excited about the project and whenever we needed something, we’d say ‘this is what we need’ and they’d send pictures for us to choose from. They interviewed them, because they have to stand by the people they’re sending over to be on set. It’s just like any other actor, really.”
While the cast was game for the racy scenes, some of the potential locations and soundtrack contributors were another matter. When I tell the pair that I loved the vintage soundtrack, Eliza reveals that a number of performers “had deep Christian values and didn’t want to have their songs in this kind of film, and we’d have to say, ‘OK.'”
“I mean, that happened during production, too,” Nate says. “We had a really hard time finding the church to shoot in, and then we had a really hard time, [this] church I guess, owned this [building]-“
“Don’t tell him the name!” Eliza scolds. I assure them the name will be redacted and suggest referring to it only as “Church X.”
“Church X,” Nate continues, “this other location that I guess was owned by them, they pulled out at the last minute.” Despite these challenges, the producers strove to reinforce the narrative with deliberate choices. One of the songs that was secured is “I’m a Man” by Jobriath, which Eliza handpicked for the end credits. “He was the first ever gay musician to have a major recording deal,” Nate tells me. “He was a gay glam rocker … he basically got torn down by the media, and then he moved into the top floor of the Chelsea [Hotel, where Robert and Patti lived] and then he died of AIDS at 38 years old. And that was another angle to it, that we wanted to try to have the narrative of the music, fit Robert’s narrative.”
So after all the trials and tribulations of Mapplethorpe, would Eliza consider producing again? In fact, she and Nate are developing projects, including the “big, epic TV series” The Black Company, though the actress/producer has other things happening. “I live back in Boston these days,” Eliza says. “Marrying a Boston boy this August, and going to school in Cambridge, working on my bachelor’s degree in holistic psychology.” I tell her that I always dreamed of going to school in Cambridge. “Me, too!” she exclaims. “So I just friggin’ went for it.”
Eliza adds that she might be starting a family soon, “but I think I’ll always have a tie in to the business. My brother and I have always been so close and share a lot of excitement around different stories and storytelling.”
Eliza also shares the excitement of her Buffy fans. I ask her for her take on being an icon to the LGBT community. “Awww!” she says. I mention the panel at Flame Con in 2017, in which panelist JE Reich responded to the question “Buffy and Angel or Buffy and Spike?” with “Buffy and Faith!” Eliza smiles knowingly and answers only, “Yeah.”
“I’m always honored and tickled when I hear that,” she continues. “I feel the love, you know, from guys telling me that I’m the only female on their ‘list,” and their boyfriend’s totally cool with it, to like, I’m the only one that would turn her!” Eliza laughs. “It’s cool that we’re living in a world today where we can just be out with like, what does it for us. [Buffy] was such a-I mean, we throw the word ‘groundbreaking’ around a lot, but it was a groundbreaking show!” Eliza adds with amazement that the series “really spoke to people and changed a lot of people’s lives! Because I meet them frequently, and they profess exactly just how it did, and it’s awesome. A lot of actors never have that opportunity to be part of something that just has such a beating heart. And such an effect on so many people, and I’ll always just be blown away and grateful for that.”
Eliza explains how this passion has benefited her personally, through “that feeling that I’ve helped people get through really hard shit. And then a few months ago, I had to go through some really hard shit (in January, she shared her experience with sexual abuse at the age of 12 at the hands of True Lies stunt coordinator Joel Kramer) but my fans kind of inspired me in the same way they told me that I inspired them so it was really kind of a beautiful circle thing.””
Biopics are a tricky beast. They can be vivid, galvanizing depictions of real life figures that bring their subjects to life with vigor and relevance: i.e. Milk. They can also be hackneyed, cliché messes that turn complicated lives into a series of familiar, screenwriter friendly tropes. Mapplethorpe, which casts Matt Smith as the legendary homoerotic photographer, isn’t immune to these pitfalls, but an outstanding cast, superior production values, and a heady dollop of sexuality make it an engrossing and entertaining movie from start to finish.
Queer geeks have a lot to celebrate with this year’s Oscar nominations:
Black Panther is the first superhero movie ever nominated for Best Picture and a boon for representation, The Favourite is a delicious lesbian love triangle nominated for seemingly every aspect of its production, and oh, yeah, Lady Gaga is up for Best Actress. But it’s not all sunshine and Vibranium. Bohemian Rhapsody’s multiple nods would be easier to celebrate if the film wasn’t tainted by its director Bryan Singer (“problematic” doesn’t even begin to describe it). And there are some glaring snubs on this year’s ballot.
Toni Collette, Hereditary: The lack of recognition for Collette’s warts-and-all, lived in, emotional roller coaster of a performance in Ari Aster’s instant horror classic quickly went viral. But truth be told, the entire movie should have gotten more consideration, except for the fact that it’s “just” a horror film. The deservedly ground-breaking Get Out picked up a screenplay statue last year, but seems to have prompted a backlash from stodgy Academy members who prefer their dramas without Satanism or (seven month old spoiler alert!) ritual beheadings. That’s too bad for Aster and cute Alex Wolff, whose subtler work as Collette’s tortured teen son is at least as powerful.
Suspiria: Gay director Luca Guadagnino’s polarizing remake of the Dario Argento classic is another victim of anti-horror bias, as well as mixed to negative reviews. Mark my words: this slept on movie will eventually be hailed as a masterpiece (no less an authority than Vanity Fair already thinks so). Tilda Swinton deserves a Best Actress nomination for playing the imperious Madame Blanc and guilt-ridden Dr. Jozef Klemperer, not to mention Thom Yorke for his tour de force original score and the heartbreakingly beautiful ballad “Suspirium.” But a case could be made for virtually every category, from director to cinematography to adapted screenplay—which replaces the turgid original mystery with a boundary pushing meditation on feminine agency and the tormented legacy of post Holocaust Berlin.
A Quiet Place: Honestly, maybe the Best Actress
field should have just been actresses in horror movies plus Glenn Close and
Olivia Colman. Not that all the
nominated ladies aren’t deserving, but no one besides Emily Blunt delivered a
soul crushing range of emotions with virtually no dialogue, nor did they give
birth in a bathtub while hiding from flesh eating aliens. Director star John Krasinki’s high concept
thriller is undoubtedly one of the year’s best movies, but was likely
overlooked because—surprise!—it’s “just another horror flick.” At least the Academy recognized the
absolutely dazzling Sound Editing.
With a title like Fags in the Fast Lane, you expect a certain type of movie: politically incorrect. Exploitation throwback. Very, very silly. Australian production company Zombie Zoo Productions delivers on all of these counts, though my take is that co-writer/director Josh “Sinbad” Collins’s film is ultimately so good-natured, it’s unlikely to offend anyone. I once read a review that described the “candy-colored, amiably slapdash” Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and that review popped into my head while watching Fags in the Fast Lane, with its fanciful costumes, arch performances, and hilarious miniatures, which make no attempt at realism whatsoever. (A dinosaur scene is about as convincing as the time I filmed my Jurassic World toys for YouTube.)
What semblance there is of a plot involves dynamic duo Sir Beauregard (Chris Asimos) and Reginald Lumpton III (Matt Jones) and their attempt to track down the burlesque gang (played by performance troupe the GoGo Goddesses) who stole precious jewels from Beau’s mom Kitten (these names!). Kitten is played, naturally, by Kitten Navidad, who earned her vintage sexploitation bonafides as the star of Russ Myers’ infamous Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Here, she’s a Madame running a GILF bordello. When she’s not having hilariously energetic sex with the villainous Chief (Pugsley Buzzard), she’s wailing about her stolen jewels. Beau, who always calls her “mama” because of course he does, enlists the Chief’s twink son Squirt (Oliver Bell) and Salome (Sacha Cuhar) to take on the gang’s fearsome leader, Wanda the Giantess (Aimee Nichols). Wanda’s voice is intensely, hilariously deep, and she is in possession of something even more precious than jewels: the powerful “Golden Cock”!
Really, this is all an excuse for a series of loosely connected skits, action sequences, and musical numbers. Highlights include a cheeky ballad sung by Hijra (Arish A. Khan) when he loses his “precious Golden Cock” and a stop motion animated sequence in which Squirt is “threatened” by all manner of phallic swamp creatures. As a cis gay man, I wasn’t personally offended by any of this nonsense, although a baseball bat is shoved pretty severely up a character’s butt (the “special effects” are too low grade for it to be all that gross) and Salome’s gender bending character leads to some offensive terminology: a “she-male worshipping cult” that is one of the approximately thirty-five brief subplots. Salome herself is sexy and ass-kicking, in any case.
Interestingly, director Collins is straight. According to the entertaining press notes, he and his wife Barbara “have created a variety of retro parties, theme bars, and happenings around the globe.” With Fags in the Fast Lane, they give us queer characters to root for and a memorable slice of ridiculous fun.
This twisty mystery could be your next obsession. Amazon’s miniseries Picnic at Hanging Rock is an adaptation of the Joan Lindsay novel (previously adapted into what has become a cult film directed by Peter Weir) about the mysterious disappearance of a group of girls at an Australian finishing school circa Valentine’s Day 1900. Based on the premiere episode screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, the series will be way more complex than even that tantalizing description suggests.
Fan fave Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) stars as Mrs. Appleyard, the enigmatic (to say the least) headmistress of the boarding school, who rules with an iron fist. From the very first scene, in which she poses as a widow scouting a potential home for the school (actually played by multiple houses, all ornate and gorgeous) and “converses” with her dead husband, we know there’s much more to her than meets the eye. The same can be said for the students, including rising star Samara Weaving (The Babysitter, Mayhem) as Irma, the girl all the boys want, and Inez Curro as pretween Sara, who’s wound up at the school following some mysterious trauma at home. By the time the girls embark on the all-important Valentine’s Day picnic, there’s enough intrigue for a season’s worth of soap opera afoot. Irma and her clique excuse themselves for a mountaintop excursion, which they’ve obviously planned ahead of time—but why? Just how close are these girls, anyway? The shit suddenly hits the fan, seemingly due to some supernatural force, and the hour ends on a cliffhanger.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the weirdest things I’ve seen in a long time– and it’s glorious. Garry Phillips’s cinematography is exquisite; the costumes are colorful and eye-popping; the mostly female cast is superb across the board. Dormer in particular is in fine form, clearly relishing this enigmatic role. At the festival panel, she joked that she was dead set against “another corset job” but was persuaded by a chat with the director, and watching her sink her teeth into this part, it’s easy to see why! The eerie, hallucinatory effect of the program is enhanced by unnerving sound design and a great score by Cezary Skubiszewski. I am very much looking forward to bingeing this series, and based on the pilot, it could definitely catch on with a cult audience.
Mary Shelley, my favorite feature from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival (and now available to stream), casts an electrifying Elle Fanning as the woman who invented science fiction with the classic novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Mary’s been portrayed on screen before, by the likes of Elsa Lanchester (who was both creator and creation in Bride of Frankenstein) and Natasha Richardson (in Ken Russell’s baroque and bizarre Gothic), but never before with any sense of realism, and certainly not in so feminist a manner as this movie.
Which isn’t to say that Mary Shelley—which, ahem, was directed by Saudi Arabia’s first female director, Haifaa Al-Mansour—is without style. It’s a gorgeously shot, meticulously designed work that dramatizes its real world characters with immediacy and excitement. Still reeling from the death of her mother, and stymied by the tyrannical presence of her stepmother, Mary is a misfit who buries her nose in horrific, “unsavory” books and has no one to rely on apart from her sister Claire (Bel Powley). That is, until she meets the beguiling poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), her father’s literary apprentice, and the two embark on a forbidden romance. Eventually the lovers run away together, taking along Claire, but happiness proves elusive for the trio. The mercurial, philandering Percy causes Mary no small amount of pain, and Claire’s affair with the enigmatic Lord Byron (scene-stealing Tom Sturridge) causes her equal misery. Through it all, Mary manages to persevere and put pen to paper for the masterpiece that is Frankenstein—even if she has to convince sexist publishers to take a chance on such a ghastly work for a female author. The inspiration for this monstrous tale is rendered in gripping cinematic fashion, by a “Phantasmagoria” stage show the characters witness and an eerie nightmare Mary has while staying at Byron’s Swiss villa.
Mary Shelley makes many such flourishes, and takes liberties with the truth—but it works, and the effect is beautiful. The poetic dialogue sounds like it belongs in an exceptionally witty play; it’s delivered by a great cast led by the excellent Fanning. Booth is appropriately beautiful and narcissistic as Percy, while Powley brings levels to the tortured Claire. Sturridge, as Byron, makes quite the impression on characters and audience when he greets Percy with a kiss on the lips; sadly, his bisexuality is left largely unexplored, save for a vague allusion later on. It’s forgivable considering how much material the writers (Emma Jensen and Al-Mansour) had to whittle down. There’s also a gorgeous score by actress/composer Amelia Warner.
Mary Shelley is a fast-moving, fanciful, yet resonant treatment of the life and talent of the famous author. It reveals a uniquely female perspective on love, loss, and sisterhood, and sheds a very modern light on the pitfalls of navigating a sexist world. Go see it.
The largest ever cast of trans actors on a scripted series assembles for something both entertaining and resonant.
The Pose screening held at New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center hosted a wonderfully eclectic crowd. Refreshingly diverse (my partner estimated that only about 15% of the audience was white), the audience included numerous trans folks and people of color as well as celebrity drag kid Desmond Is Amazing, who dazzled the audience with a brief vogue routine just before the episode started. I mention all of this for a few reasons. The program’s cinematic look translated effortlessly to the big screen, no surprise considering co-creator Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, credited here alongside African American Bronx native Steve Canals, brought a polished visual aesthetic to their Glee, American Horror Story, and American Crime Story franchises. The audience’s response was rapturous at times—the ball scenes may as well have been happening in the room for how enthusiastically everyone applauded, and audible gasps were heard when villainous rival Mother Elektra (Dominique Jackson) called protagonist Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) “beast.” This would seem to indicate that the community being portrayed was satisfied with the depiction, a genuine concern when this show was announced. (Because I love me some Ryan Murphy, but he can be problematic as hell, especially where racial and gender identity politics are concerned.) The community center venue and carefully cultivated crowd indicated canny marketing, to be sure, but also an honest desire to reach out to and include the people this program is meant to celebrate in addition to the usual suspects: i.e. white, mostly male critics. (Guilty as charged.)
Based on the premiere alone, Pose has huge potential. The series explores the Manhattan ball culture of the 1980s, a world made famous by the documentary Paris Is Burning. The first episode largely works as a self-contained experience, while also setting up characters and conflict for subsequent installments. In the stunning opening sequence, we meet Elektra, Blanca, and the other members of the House of Abundance and immediately sense a conflict between the first two women; the scene quickly shifts to a museum where the group raids an exhibition of authentic royal finery and manages to win a nearby ball competition before being led away in handcuffs. “And that is how you do a Ball!” Billy Porter’s Pray Tell breathlessly declares. Cue Pose logo and enthusiastic cheers from the crowd.
Cut to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) dreams of becoming a dancer before being beaten and literally thrown out of the house by his homophobic father and Christian mother. The expected caring mom versus cruel dad dynamic is shattered the instant she slaps Damon across the face. He winds up on the streets of New York City around the same time Blanca gets diagnosed with HIV and decides to leave the House of Abundance to form a house of her own. Needless to say, their paths soon cross, with Blanca impressed with Damon’s dancing. Swain is a terrific dancer, and tremendously appealing, if a bit green as an actor—something that could be said of numerous Glee cast members who subsequently improved over the years. Rodriguez, meanwhile, is excellent and imbues her role with real pathos and conviction. She sells at times on-the-nose dialogue by bringing out its truth.
Some of the character’s experiences—for example, explaining that the knowledge she’ll die of AIDS is at least one certainty in her otherwise uncertain existence—are so specific that they surely came from a creator’s actual life. Blanca and Damon’s burgeoning family dynamic soon grows to include Angel (Indya Moore), who’s fed up with the House of Abundance and the painful rejection she experiences applying for a job, and in her burgeoning romance with Stan (Murphy stalwart Evan Peters), a Trump executive with a wife (Kate Mara) and kids. Stan picks Angel up while she’s working the street, and their encounter in a hotel room is touching, funny, and incredibly specific. It also gives us our first taste of Moore’s considerable acting chops. Having co-starred in the trans themed musical Saturday Church, the actress here takes center stage. She’s beautiful and by turns confident, insecure, sassy and hilarious. (“Can we talk?” Stan asks while “I’m Not in Love” purrs over the radio. “Of course. It’s my second best skill,” Angel declares.) It’s a three dimensional character, and if there’s any justice in the world it will be a star-making role for Moore. Speaking of stars, Porter inches closer to an EGOT with his host/fashion designer character, a sort of fairy godfather to Blanca and her group. He steals every scene he’s in, no small feat considering he’s usually acting alongside elaborately dressed voguers.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a ball show without balls, and Pose has them in abundance (pardon the pun). The choreography and extravagant costumes are exhilarating, including a show stopping solo Damon performs to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” It’s an eleventh-hour dance school audition secured by Blanca, who replies to the dean’s “who are you again?” with “I’m his mother.”
As the premiere ended to the sounds of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”—the soundtrack to Pose is amazing—there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. There are a lot of gay shows and movies, but not many of them feel queer, and they too often foreground white characters and experiences. Not so this series, which rewards audiences hungry for representation and looks to be an illuminating and engrossing experience. It’s about time.