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PRIDE documentary review: A raw, heartbreaking, invigorating history of LGBTQ+ struggle

·3-min read
Author and historian Jules Gill-Peterson (Disney+)
Author and historian Jules Gill-Peterson (Disney+)

“It’s really important to know that you’re not going through these things for the first time,” says author and historian Jules Gill-Peterson at one point during this documentary series on the struggle for LGBTQ+ civil rights in the US. And at our current juncture — with LGBTQ+ protections being actively stripped away in some parts of the world, and the very existence of certain humans up for “debate” in others — it’s definitely not a bad time to be reminded of the need for (and potentially transformative power of) organised movements.

That’s largely what these six episodes provide, with each 45-minute installment covering a different decade. We begin in the 1950s, as the US government curtails the freedoms of queer people, and then move into the Sixties, as an atmosphere of non-violent protest simmers to point of militant revolution. Into the Seventies, we learn about the first Gay Pride march, seminal queer artists, and religious opposition. In the Eighties, we fall beneath the dark shadow of Aids, but find light in the underground ballroom scene. Later, in the Nineties, a blooming of queer culture is met by fierce backlash in the “culture wars”, and as the 21st century arrives, increasing visibility for cisgender members of the LGBTQ+ community is placed besides the ongoing hardships of trans folk.

It’s a carefully painted portrait of victory and setback, heroes and villains. Larger stories are told through the lives of a few key figures, from Bayard Rustin — the key force behind the March on Washington, but whose sexuality meant he never found the respect he deserved — to Ceyenne Doroshow, a tireless champion of the Black Trans Live Matter Movement. In some broad social histories, the individual can get lost among the grander narratives, but by zeroing in one a handful of influential activists, the documentary stays tethered to the distinctly human pain and love that drives it all.

It also allows for a slightly different historical context to be drawn up; the Stonewall riots, for example, are of course mentioned, but attention is given to other, lesser-known “queer rebellions” that preceded it. We’re also told the devastating story of Lester C. Hunt, a US senator in the Fifties who, blackmailed by other politicians after his son was arrested on homophobic charges, was driven to suicide — a tragedy that was largely covered up by the establishment for years after.

Better known figures are given rightful praise, such as the trailblazing trans actress and entertainer Christine Jorgensen, who scaled new heights of celebrity in the Fifties, but a holistic view is often taken. As one interviewee points out, Jorgensen was pivotal in introducing the public to transgender existence, but her rise was no doubt enabled by her whiteness and femininity, at a time when trans people of colour were mostly ignored.

And the successes aren’t sugar-coated, either. Moments of joy — changes in legislation, court victories, or quieter vignettes of contentment captured in home videos — are often followed by hideous archive footage of caustic evangelicals, bigoted politicians and police brutality. For LGBTQ+ people, these dangers are never too far away.

It’s weighty stuff, and the decision to have each episode helmed by different directors means that the stories avoid being told in repetitive formats — the varied filmmaking styles match the ever-changing nature of the struggle.

Overall, PRIDE is far removed from the sanitised, corporate appropriation of the word that we’ve seen in recent times. It’s raw, sobering, heartbreaking and invigorating; a reminder of how much has been lost and gained in the past, and how much change still needs to be realised.

June 25, Disney+

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