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‘Mrs. America’ is best cure for cabin fever

Hulu series focuses on battle over the ERA

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Mrs. America, gay news, Washington Blade
Cate Blanchett stars as Phyllis Schlafly in ‘Mrs. America.’ (Photo by Sabrina Lantos for FX)

“We’re all secretaries to them.”

“Mrs. America” is a dazzling triumph, must-see TV of the highest quality and a much-needed antidote to cabin fever.

The nine-episode series by FX on Hulu is about the riveting battle over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). It’s broad and ambitious in scope, clearly and effortlessly capturing the epic flow of history, yet richly nuanced and finely detailed in it storytelling, capturing the quirks and foibles of leaders on both sides of the battle and drawing well-rounded portraits of the fascinating people who left their marks on American political history.

Running from 1971 (the introduction of the ERA) through 1980 (the election of Ronald Reagan), the series centers on Phyllis Schlafly, “the sweetheart of the silent majority,” a conservative activist who played a crucial role in Republican politics from her support of Barry Goldwater in 1964 to her support of Donald Trump in 2016.

As the series opens, Schlafly is producing the influential “Phyllis Schlafly Report” with a dedicated cadre of volunteers. Her primary interest is national defense (she has a master’s degree in government), but she quickly realizes that opposition to the ERA can be her most effective organizing tool. She develops a highly effective campaign that combines fear-mongering (“do you want your daughter to be a lesbian?”) with a positive message (pro-family, pro-life, pro-America). She launches STOP ERA and the Eagle Forum.

Schlafly’s grassroots approach successfully ambushed supporters of the ERA who had lined up broad bipartisan support for the amendment that would guarantee equal protection on the basis of sex. The bill had easily passed both houses of Congress with support from President Richard Nixon (and subsequent support from Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter); by 1972 the amendment had been ratified by 28 of the 38 states required for enactment. Schlafly’s intervention stopped that progress in its tracks.

Series creator and showrunner Dahvi Waller wisely keeps the fascinating figure of Schlafly front and center through all nine episodes of the series, but uses a clever narrative strategy to tell the other side of the story. The first episode introduces the group of fierce second-wave feminists who support the ERA and each subsequent episode spotlights one of the feminist leaders.

The second episode spotlights Gloria Steinem (a groovy performance by Rose Byrne); the third episode focuses on Shirley Chisholm (played with precision and passion by Uzo Aduba) and her historic run for president; and the fourth episode turns to Betty Friedan, widely considered the mother of the feminist movement (a wonderfully intense performance by Tracey Ullman).

Episode five recreates the prime-time “couples debate” between the traditional Phyllis and Fred Schlafly and the liberated Brenda and Marc Feigen-Fasteau. LGBT issues rise to the surface as Brenda has an affair with a female photographer and Phyllis discovers that her eldest son John is gay.

Episode six focuses on Republican Party politics. As Phyllis tries to move the party to the right, Jill Ruckelshaus (the exquisite Elizabeth Banks in a finely tuned performance) debates how to shore up support for the ERA. Episode seven centers on the abrasive Bella Abzug (a bravura display by Margo Martindale).

Episode eight brings all of the characters together at the National Women’s Conference in Houston. The fierce floor battle includes a fight over support for lesbian rights. Episode nine effectively wraps things up with a focus on presidential politics: Abzug is fired as chair of Carter’s National Advisory Committee for Women and Schlafly helps Ronald Reagan win the Republican nomination and the general election.

Waller and her writing staff do an amazing job at presenting all of this material in a clear, concise and compelling manner. They find the fiery passions beneath the rigorous intellectual and political debates on both sides of the issue and fearlessly probe the private costs of living very public lives. Some of the minor characters do get lost along the way, but overall, the series creates complete and complex story arcs for all of the principal characters.

Waller and her directing and design team bring the 1970s to vivid life. The period detail is impeccable; it is incredible to see how quickly technology and shifting norms have changed American society. It’s a great character note that Phyllis is an early technology adapter; she happily trades in her typewriter for a computer and brags that she can fit her entire mailing list on one of the new floppy disks.

Cigarettes are everywhere; fortunately, that has changed. Sexist attitudes are also everywhere; sadly, that has not entirely gone away. All of the women are subject to second-class treatment. In an early episode, Phyllis is asked to take notes during a meeting with Sen. Goldwater; later when Bella and Shirley are dismissed as they try to stop the sexual harassment of congressional staff, Bella wryly observes, “we’re all secretaries to them.” As the #metoo movement demonstrates, that battle continues.

The acting is top-notch. Blanchett shines in her rich multi-faceted portrayal of Schlafly and embraces all of the character’s prickly contradictions. She promotes traditional family values, yet leaves her own family in the care of an African-American maid; she loves her husband and asks for his guidance in presenting her legal arguments, but joyfully manipulates him when necessary. She’s ruthless, passionate, blazingly intelligent, proudly stylish and all too willing to bend the truth to make her case. Blanchett’s work is sure to dominate awards season (whenever that happens).

The supporting cast is equally strong. John Slattery is great as the devoted Fred Schlafly and Jeanne Tripplehorn is heartbreaking as his unmarried (and therefore invisible) sister Eleanor. Niecy Nash is pure dynamite as feminist activist Flo Kennedy and James Marsden is wonderful as the condescending Phil Crain who always gets outplayed by Phyllis. Melanie Lynskey is delightful as Rosemary Thomson, an ambitious member of STOP ERA who frequently brings some lovely humor to the proceedings.

Most notably, Sarah Paulson is terrific as Alice Macray, a character created by Waller, who starts out as one of Phyllis’s most dedicated supporters. One of the best scenes in the entire series is when a slightly tipsy Alice strikes up a conversation with another delegate at the National Women’s Convention. The two happily swap pictures and sip Pink Ladies until Alice discovers that her new friend is an ERA supporter and she flees in terror.

The first three episodes of FX on Hulu’s “Mrs. America” will drop on Hulu on April 15; subsequent episodes will drop weekly.

The series is an excellent history lesson, but it also shines a powerful spotlight on contemporary politics. The battle over the ERA, which has still not been enacted, brought about a seismic shift in American politics. Like the infamous Roy Cohn, Phyllis Schlafly is part of a conservative movement that moved the Republic Party from Barry Goldwater to Donald Trump and silenced the party’s moderate wing. Like the second wave feminists, progressive activists still struggle with intersectional politics and developing a unified and effective opposition.

As Alice Macray wonders, is there a way to start to build bridges and move forward?

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Television

‘And Just Like That’ is clunky, but shows promise

SATC reboot suffers without Samantha’s irreverence

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‘And Just Like That’ reunites three of the original four from ‘Sex and the City.’ (Screen capture via HBO Max)

Just in time for the holidays, “And Just Like That,” the 10-part “Sex and the City” (SATC) revival has premiered on HBO Max.

The first two episodes of “And Just Like That” aired on Dec. 9. One episode will air weekly until the show’s Feb. 3 season finale.

I have only seen the first two episodes of “And Just Like That.”

The reboot has its awkward, clunky, annoying moments, but shows glimmers of tenderness, wit, and promise.

It’s not a lump of coal in your stocking. Yet, it’s too soon to tell whether it’s a gift from your loving, but clueless aunt or an awesome present from your BFF.

But, it’s definitely worth putting under your tree.

How I miss “funky spunk” “Father Fuck” and “The Rabbit!”

If you’re an SATC aficionado, you’ll know that while Samantha couldn’t abide “funky spunk,” she longed to canoodle with a hot priest. (Naturally, he was “Father Fuck” in Samantha’s fantasies.) And, you’ll remember how much pleasure “the Rabbit” (a vibrator) gave Charlotte and Miranda.

Those are just a few moments that “Sex and The City” fans have missed since the arch, fashion-trend maker, sexual-taboo-breaker, HBO show’s 2004 finale.

What we’ve pined for wasn’t just the sex. It was the wit and friendship of the four bright, badass, professional, witty and, it can’t be denied, privileged women, who were the stars of SATC: writer and sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), lawyer Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), art dealer Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) and public relations pro Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall).

We missed hearing the ladies talk openly, and wittily, sometimes tenderly or thoughtfully, about everything from “funky spunk” to “shortcomings” to their affairs with married men to threesomes to their abortions.

After the SATC finale, there were two “Sex and the City” movies. The first, released in 2008, was mediocre. The second, released in 2010, was beyond horrible.

After all these years, it’s lovely to see Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte (along with their husbands: Big, Steve and Harry respectively).

But, there’s a gaping hole! There’s no Samantha!

It’s no secret that Cattrall and Parker weren’t getting along off-screen. Cattrall didn’t want to be in “And Just Like That.”

You can’t blame the SATC folks for forging ahead with “And Just Like That.” Interest in the SATC characters has remained high, and shows with female characters in their 50s are few and far between.

Now that Miranda, Carrie and Charlotte are in their mid-fifties, “And Just Like That” could become “The Golden Girls” of our era.

But that’s not likely without Samantha, who was the essential queer sensibility of SATC.

Samantha’s irreverent, she loves sex, quiets babies down with vibrators, and though she’d never cop to it, has the proverbial heart of gold.

“And Just Like That” needs an infusion of irreverence.

SATC had problems of representation. Its characters were too white and too privileged. For its time, it had a queer quotient. Carrie’s best friend Stanford Blatch (the late Willie Garson) was gay, as was Charlotte’s best friend Anthony Marantino (Mario Cantone). But its depictions of bisexuals, lesbians, and trans people were stereotyped at best – bi and transphobic at worst.

“And Just Like That” works hard to correct those problems.

There are several characters who are people of color — from a law school professor to an upper-class mom.

Stanford and Anthony are now a bickering married couple. And there is Che Diaz (Sara Ramirez) a “queer, nonbinary, Mexican-Irish diva,” a podcaster, who is Carrie’s boss.

It’s great that the show is trying to do better with representation, but it’s trying too hard.

We face serious issues – from parenting to grief – as we age. But, as any “Golden Girls” disciple knows, you don’t lose your sense of humor or lustiness as you grow older.

If “And Just Like That,” learns that, then it’ll be a great show.

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Television

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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Arts & Entertainment

Show must go on- Lil Nas X’s embarrassing wardrobe malfunction on SNL

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Lil Nas X performing on NBC's SNL May 22, 2021 (Screenshot via SNL YouTube channel)

NEW YORK – Montero Lamar Hill, known by his stage name Lil Nas X, was performing his latest hit single ‘Call Me By Your Name’ from his album MONTERO on NBC’s Saturday Night Live when his pants ripped at the crotch.

The openly out singer-songwriter- rapper glanced down then back up at the audience, covered the affected area with his hand and kept singing in what reviewers and commentators are calling “the gayest performance ever on national television” and “iconic.”

WATCH:

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