TFF 2020 Review: Socks on Fire

Director Bo McGuire in the opening of Socks on Fire

My early notes for Socks on Fire, Alabama-born director Bo McGuire’s unusual and personal documentary, are pretty harsh.  “Bizarre,” I wrote after the opening few minutes, with elaborate tableaus of various people throughout a house, with objects like dishes mysteriously floating in the air.  We’re dropped in with little context or explanation of who these people are or what these tableaus are meant to convey.  I jotted down “pretentious?” after McGuire drawled the first of many monologues, this one concerning his childhood belief that his grandmother’s backyard was “the forest.”  I continued to struggle with McGuire’s unique approach to his family history.  Mixed in with home videos and interviews with his mother, godmother, and uncle are elaborate recreations of events, as well as behind the scenes glimpses of those recreations.  Was he purposefully emphasizing the artificiality of these scenes?  To what end?  Was this all just a little too arch, too camp, to take seriously?

But as I continued to watch the film, and Socks on Fire established a narrative—essentially, it’s the story of how Bo’s gay uncle John was ostracized by his aunt Sharon, who tried to lock him out of the family home his mother wanted him to inherit after her death—I warmed to the movie’s offbeat approach.  With his hipster trucker hat, red glasses, and colorful suits, McGuire cuts a distinctive figure.  He relates his own experience growing up gay in a small town, and his close relationship with his grandmother and mother.  He and his aunt Sharon were close, too, but as he became a preteen and started to show more flamboyance—the videotapes from this time are priceless, and relatable—she seemed to turn against him.  He recalls how she mockingly called him “Reba,” after his favorite singer at the time, Reba McEntire, and how hurtful that was.  Following his grandmother’s death, Sharon conspired to take her house away from John, who would otherwise be homeless.  This seemed driven mostly by her immense discomfort with his sexuality.

Apart from an intriguing bit of hidden camera footage in which Sharon confronts John inside the house, McGuire dramatizes the conflict by casting John, a drag queen, in the role of his own sister.  John’s performance manages to transcend camp and get at a deeper emotional truth about his estranged sibling.  I wondered if it was unfair to make this film without giving Sharon a voice to defend herself, but it’s clear that McGuire was interested in more than a caricature or a middle finger at his aunt.  A discussion of her troubled, possibly abusive marriage and scenes of actors Odessa Young and Michael Patrick Nicholson playing young Sharon and her husband suggest a desire to understand what drives her. 

A Family Affair: Bo McGuire, his mom Susan McGuire, and his uncle John Washington

McGuire has a keen visual sense and displays creativity throughout his movie—animating photo collages to bring them to life, for instance.  His movie is a heartfelt reflection on the importance and meaning of family, with his loving and accepting mother Susan helping to explode stereotypes about Southern attitudes towards gay folks.  Socks on Fire stands out from the pack even in a festival known for its documentaries; McGuire was awarded Tribeca’s Best Documentary Feature prize for his efforts.  It challenged my ideas of what a documentary could be.

Mutant & Magical Boy—Episode 08: The Category Is Pride

It’s tea time, ladies! In what might be our gayest episode yet (don’t @ us), we’re gagging on FX’s new queer spectacular, Pose. Is it 10s, 10s across the board? Well, you’ll have to listen, hunty! Do the queens serve you life, death, and glitter on a platter? Bih, you already know. Happy Pride!



The gayest blerds you’ll ever meet ,
Mutant & Magical Boy

Review: Pose

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.