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Thanks to Ryan Murphy, Netflix throws an inclusive ‘Prom’

A queer story with mainstream pop appeal

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The Prom, gay news, Washington Blade
The cast of ‘The Prom.’ (Photo courtesy Netflix)

According to Ryan Murphy, he wanted to make a film version of “The Prom” since the moment he saw it on Broadway.

Watching the new Netflix movie that resulted from that spark of inspiration, it’s not hard to see why. The musical, which found a hardcore fan audience despite a less-than-profitable Broadway run, is a piece that is a perfect match for the entertainment mogul’s brand, a frothy mix that exists on the thin line between camp and hokum, blending sharp-edged wit with inspirational sentiment and over-the-top farce with activism. It’s a queer story with mainstream pop appeal that leans heavily into a love of All Things Broadway. Unless there was also a serial killer thrown in somewhere, how could anything be more Ryan Murphy than that?

There was more behind Murphy’s enthusiasm for the piece than just a savvy selection of tailor-made grist for the entertainment mill that is his contract with Netflix, however. As an LGBTQ person who grew up in a small Indiana town himself, the show-biz powerhouse found a personal connection to its story of an Indiana teen who has to fight against the homophobia of her small town community in order to take her girlfriend to their high school prom. It spoke to his own memories and hopes – and as it turns out, that heart connection is the ingredient that makes his translated-to-film version of “The Prom” much better than it probably deserves to be.

Inspired by the real-life experience of Mississippi high schooler Constance McMillen, the story centers on Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), an out lesbian senior whose plan to take her secret girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) to the prom is thwarted by her school’s PTA-mandated no-same-sex-date policy. Her cause is taken up by a group of down-on-their-luck Broadway actors — including a famous but fading diva (Meryl Streep) and her GBF (James Corden) — whose co-starring turn in a musical based on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt has just closed after only a single performance. They hit upon the scheme of creating an activist cause around her in order to garner some career-boosting publicity.

Along with Emma’s supportive principal (Keegan-Michael Key), they succeed in forcing the school to hold an inclusive prom; but when the PTA president (Kerry Washington) uses a loophole to shut Emma out anyway, the cadre of showfolk will have to dive deeper than their own self-centered motivations if they are going to be able to make things right again and score a decisive win against homophobia in the heart of small-town America.

As written by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin (with the latter providing lyrics to music by Matthew Sklar), the musical is unabashedly designed to be a crowd-pleaser, full of comedy and heart, with just enough drama to make it mean something and a message only a bigot could refute; the score, spiced up with youthful flourishes but nevertheless grounded in a stylistic base that is pure traditional Broadway, is exuberant and infectious, and allows plenty of opportunity for the kind of show-stopping dance numbers that make an evening of live musical theater an experience quite unlike any other.

Presumably out of a desire to maintain the integrity of the show’s original voice, producer-director Murphy enlisted the trio of original writers to adapt their work to the screen; the result is an expanded but mostly faithful reimagining that maintains the bones of its stage-bound architecture while also deepening some of its more sensitive moments with the kind of embellishment made possible by cinematic technique and a no-expense-spared budget.

That budget is also behind the film’s other biggest asset, a stellar dream cast headed by Streep and Corden, with Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells in close support – all in addition to the other talented stars mentioned above. It’s clear this high-profile ensemble is having a blast in their roles; Streep is in fine form, as always, and Corden is capable of charming us in anything (even, almost, the horror that was “Cats”), but everyone else performs at an equally high level; special mention should go to Kidman, though, for managing to take on the role of an aging chorus girl and making us believe that she’s been dancing in the background for 20 years without ever getting noticed – as if she weren’t, well, a superstar like Nicole Kidman.

These players are gifted enough to take the broadest, corniest, most cliched bits of the script – which, in truth, amounts to most of it, by design – and giving it not just the extra dimension it needs to be more than a goofy pastiche, but the enthusiasm and all-around show-biz moxie that keeps an audience engaged and entertained even when the story lags.

And it does lag, there is no denying it. As any aficionado of musical theater will surely tell you, all but the most remarkable of shows suffer from what’s often called the “second-act slump,” and “The Prom” is no exception. Indeed, it’s exacerbated here by the script’s reliance on the tried-and-true “beats” that have formed the core of the genre’s dramatic structure since the days when musicals made the transition from the era of Ziegfeld’s Follies to the age of “Oklahoma.” Onstage, this slavish adherence to traditional format is surely part of the show’s charm, another function of its lovingly self-mocking tone. But on film, without the in-person visceral excitement that comes from seeing those aforementioned dance numbers exploding before your eyes, it can be an obstacle to keeping the interest of audiences used to more sophisticated fare.

Thankfully, the film rendition of “The Prom” never lets its slow spots hold it back for long. Murphy the director relies on the strengths of his cast while filling the screen with the kind of artfully kitschy, colorful visual spectacle that makes even his pulpiest endeavors a feast for the eyes; and while his quick-edit cinematic style fails to capture the majesty of its dance sequences (choreographed with vigor and an aptly satirical touch by Casey Nicholaw) in the same way as the long takes of the classic Hollywood musicals that so clearly inform his palette here, the flash and movement with which he instills every moment of them is more than enough to keep us appropriately dazzled by them.

More importantly, though, he makes “The Prom” a success despite its flaws because of that heart connection that led him to make it in the first place; in the midst of all the larger-than-life “zazz” (to borrow a phrase from the film), he never lets us forget the importance of the human story underneath it, and the powerful message of acceptance that was intended to be the show’s reason all along.

It has to be acknowledged that Murphy’s track record is somewhat hit-or-miss for all but his most ardent fans, and that “The Prom” is the kind of bubbly, lightweight musical theater that you’re probably not going to like if you’re not a fan of that kind of material.

For everybody else though, it’s worth putting at the top of your Netflix queue when the streaming platform drops it on Dec. 11.

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LGBTQ youth inspired to action by “Cured” documentary and country’s homophobic past

“Cured” documentary a revelation for LGBTQ youth

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A new documentary’s archival footage of the country’s homophobic past opened the eyes of four young members of the LGBTQ+ community who were only dimly aware of the events the film describes.

“Cured,” which aired on PBS’ Independent Lens on October 11, was a revelation to the youth– who work with the D.C.-based Urban Health Media Project on multimedia health journalism. 

Some of the scenes that made an impression:

  • At a 1966 South Florida high school assembly on the evils of homosexuality, an official warns students that “if we catch you … the rest of your life will be a living hell.’’  
  • A gay psychiatrist, appearing on a 1972 American Psychiatric Association panel, is identified only as “Dr. Henry Anonymous.” He’s so afraid of reprisals that he must protect his identity by wearing a Halloween face mask and a fright wig and using a distortion mic.  
  • A series of sober, eminent psychiatrists – leaders of the profession – insist in forum after forum that homosexuality is a sickness.

For two decades, that assumption was reflected in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM),” the American psychiatric profession’s official compendium of mental and brain diseases and disorders.

“Cured” tells the story of how a relatively small number of courageous gay activists got the “gays are sick” notion struck from the manual –a pivotal moment in the gay liberation movement.

“Being gay and trans myself,’’ said Hermes Falcon, “this film meant a lot to me, because it exposed me to people that I didn’t even know were part of the movement.’’

Those people included Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny, who in the mid-1960s – when most Americans still said they feared or hated homosexuals — organized some of the first public protests against employment discrimination against gays. One depicted in “Cured”took place outside the White House.

Another early activist was Dr. John Fryer, the psychiatrist who, it later turned out, was “Dr. Anonymous.’’

 Falcon, a college freshman, also noted the tension at the heart of the story told by “Cured”: “How working together makes a big difference, but also how one person can make a big change.’’

Falcon cited the example of Fryer, who testified at the APA convention in Dallas in 1972 that anti-gay bias was hurting psychiatrists, too. At that point, the DSM’s entry 302.0, which termed homosexuality “a mental disorder,” was two decades old. Within two years of Fryer’s testimony, it had been abolished.

Another young member of the LGBTQ+ community, Adrian Gibbons, an assistant video editor at UHMP and recent college graduate, also was struck by the example of Fryer, “a real person who was risking his job to stand up for himself and the LGBTQ community.’’ His example, Gibbons said, “inspires me to fight for myself and my community, no matter the risks.’’

Gibbons noted that some trailblazers faced a harsh backlash from colleagues or family members. But he said their sacrifice was worth it, considering that “their efforts brought justice to LGBTQ people who had been injured or abused in mental institutions, and saved countless people from being put through that same torture in the future.’’

Torture is probably not too strong a word; “Cured” shows how electroshock and even lobotomy were used as elements of “conversion therapy’’ to make gay people straight.   

The early activists’ sheer courage also inspired Dillon Livingston, a high school student. The film shows, he said, that “it is imperative to remain true to yourself, even if everyone around you does not like the things that make you who you are.’’ 

Even though they faced intense discrimination and disdain, he added, the gay rights pioneers “were proud about their sexuality.’’

The four young LGBTQ+ viewers agreed that “Cured”made them more appreciative of the efforts of those who went before them, and more eager to emulate their example in the future.

As Livingston put it, “I must speak more about the queer community to inform heterosexuals about the problem we face.’’ 

Jojo Brew, an aspiring filmmaker, agreed: “All those people in the sixties and seventies fought for our rights, so it’s only fair that we continue to fight for the next generation’s rights.’’ 

“Cured” airs locally at 9 p.m. Oct. 21 on WHUT. After its broadcast premiere Oct. 11, the film will be available to stream for free on the PBS app and website for 30 days. The documentary will be rebroadcast a few more times over the next three years and eventually released on streaming platforms.

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Amazon Prime doc tells story of Black, queer civil rights pioneer

RBG quoted Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray before Supreme Court

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AFI Docs, gay news, Washington Blade
Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

No one could have imagined the life of Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray, the Black, queer, gender nonconforming civil rights pioneer who lived from 1910 to 1985.

Few people have done as much to make the world more just than Murray. Last year, Murray’s scholarship was used to help the ACLU successfully argue before the Supreme Court that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ+ people from being fired in the workplace because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Yet, many people don’t know who Murray was.

“My Name is Pauli Murray,” a new documentary playing in select theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime, tells the story of Murray’s fascinating life. The engrossing film is co-directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who directed “RBG,” the popular documentary on Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“RBG” is a good documentary. Yet, the 131-minutes-long “My Name is Pauli Murray” is even better.

Conveying the complexity of Murray’s life in a doc of that short length would fell many mortals. But West and Cohen are up to the task.

Using recordings of Murray’s voice; Murray’s letters, footage of everything from Murray with one of her dogs to Harlem in the 1930s along with interviews with Murray’s family and biographers, the film draws you into Murray’s world.

To say Murray was a Renaissance woman isn’t trite. Murray was a lawyer, poet, writer, activist and educator. That’s just the tip of the iceberg!

For decades, Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt were friends. Murray was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women. Gay writers James Baldwin and Langston Hughes were her writing buddies. Murray and Baldwin were the first Black writers to be invited to the distinguished MacDowell writing colony.

In her 60s, Murray left her tenured position teaching at Brandeis University to go to seminary. She became the first Black woman to be ordained a priest by the Episcopal Church.

It doesn’t stop there! A paper Murray wrote as a Howard Law School student was a key element of Thurgood Marshall’s strategy in overthrowing racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted Murray when she argued against sex discrimination before the Supreme Court.

While she was alive, Murray was closeted about much of her personal life. Murray had a decades-long relationship with Irene Barlow. But, because of the times in which she lived, Murray couldn’t be open about their relationship.

Murray felt that she was misgendered—like a man in a woman’s body. This, too, Murray kept secret.

In “My Name is Pauli Murray,” Murray’s family and biographers refer to Murray with the pronouns “she and her.” A non-binary activist refers to Murray as “they.”

Murray is having a much-deserved moment. In 2016, Yale University named one of its residential colleges after Murray. It was the first time a Yale college was named after a person of color or an (openly) LGBTQ+ person. In 1965, Murray was the first African American to graduate from Yale with a doctorate in judicial science.

In 2017, the National Park Service, part of the Department of the Interior, Murray’s family home in Durham, N.C., as a National Historic Landmark.

Watching, “My Name is Pauli Murray,” you’re bowled over by Murray’s resilience and achievements. Fifteen years before Rosa Parks, she protested racial segregation on buses.

“I’ve lived to see my lost causes found,” Murray says.

It’s hard to humanize an icon. But, the filmmakers don’t place Murray on Mount Olympus.

Even as a child, we learn, Murray wanted to wear pants. That was fine during the week, her Aunt Pauline said, but Murray would have to wear a dress to church on Sunday. Though, few understood Murray’s feelings, Aunt Pauline called Murray “my boy girl.”

Murray and Barlow never lived together. Yet, you get a sense of their intimacy from the letters they exchanged. They called each other “Linus” and “Charlie Brown” (characters in the Peanuts comic strip) and wrote of longing to “share” listening to Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and the New York Times crossroad puzzle.

“My Name is Pauli Murray” will leave you talking about Murray and how to honor her legacy. That would have made Murray happy.

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New doc sets the record straight about ‘Fauci’

Film offers humanizing overview of hero’s life

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The good doctor himself in "Fauci" (Photo courtesy of National Geographic)

For those who lived through the AIDS epidemic, the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020 was accompanied by an inescapable air of déjà vu. There were plenty of reasons for this, of course: it was a terrifying new disease, not much was known and even less understood about how it spread, there was no effective treatment or cure available, the government’s response to it sparked a political firestorm, and—most significantly—lots of people were dying. As if all that weren’t enough, right in the middle of the public conversation about it was the same familiar face, none other than Dr. Anthony Fauci himself.

For many who worked as activists during the peak years of that earlier epidemic, Fauci was the adversary. Then, as now, he found himself in the crosshairs of a whole angry sector of society, bearing the brunt of the anger that arose from their fear of an uncertain future and becoming, once again, one of the most polarizing public figures in American politics, without even being a politician. Ironically, this time around, instead of being perceived as the face of government inaction and establishment obstructionism, he has been elevated to the status of progressive icon.

To understand how that seeming transformation is possible—as well as to look past the surface parallels between cultural response to the two plagues and see the profound differences instead—it’s necessary to look past the broad strokes of the headlines and the two-line bios that make up most of the knowledge most Americans have about AIDS, COVID and Fauci, and get a more detailed knowledge of the history that links them all together. Fortunately, a new National Geographic documentary, which began streaming on Disney Plus on Oct. 6, is here to provide exactly that.

The film came about when two filmmakers, Emmy-winners John Hoffman and Janet Tobias, joined forces after being separately inspired to make a film about Fauci, who, for those who have been in an isolation module for the past 40 years, was appointed director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in 1984 and has advised seven presidents on domestic and global health issues during the decades since. Aided by unprecedented access to their subject, who was not only supportive but fully cooperative, along with access to decades of deep archival material and a wide array of prominent public figures eager to participate, the result of their collaboration is an impressive piece of cinematic journalism titled, simply, “Fauci.”

Starting out with a humanizing overview of Fauci’s early life, the film offers us a protagonist whose dreams of a private Park Avenue practice gave way to a passion for the study of infectious diseases, and whose enduring marriage to Dr. Christine Grady began with a “meet-cute” that would have been right at home in a Hollywood rom-com. It then tracks his professional career, not just the two epidemics that have bookended his time in public service to date, but details from the intervening years that most people have either forgotten or never known, like his efforts in stemming the threat of Ebola when it began to appear in the U.S., and his role in ensuring global action to the AIDS crisis that was unfolding in Africa and the Caribbean.

Still, it’s inevitable that the documentary concentrates most of its attention on his most famous contributions—spearheading the fights against AIDS and COVID in America—and it does so by highlighting the aforementioned parallels between the two epidemics while also giving us a Fauci’s-eye view of how each played out. Throughout, we go back and forth across the decades, with the help of news footage and extensive interviews, to gather insight from the defining moments of each of these historic public health battles; we are reminded that, while Fauci was seen as the opposition by ACT UP and other AIDS activist organizations seeking to speed up the availability of drugs and treatment for HIV. He also listened to their concerns and learned from them. Bucking resistance from his colleagues, he gave activists and community members directly affected by AIDS a seat at the table and opened the door for their participation in designing the clinical trials that would ultimately bring the life-preserving drug cocktails that stopped a positive diagnosis from being a death sentence. While social media feeds over the past two years have been full of anti-Fauci posts reminding us of his early obstructionism in the AIDS fight, few have bothered to include the rest of that story, but “Fauci” sets the record straight.

In focusing on this end of history, however, the movie gives us a refresher course—as if one was needed—on the unprecedented level of opposition Fauci faced from the very administration it was his job to serve in the campaign against COVID. It reveals the pressures put on Fauci and his family by the vitriolic hatred of his detractors, the hardships imposed on his life and routine by the security protocols enacted in response to the death threats that come as a natural consequence of being used as a political scapegoat. And it makes quite clear that those who protest his methods this time around are working from a very different motivation than the one that drove the heroes of ACT UP.

More important than any of this, perhaps, is the chance “Fauci” gives us to get to know the man himself. The filmmakers position him squarely in his rightful place at the center of their movie, allowing us a look past the professional veneer that has become a fixture on news broadcasts and at press conferences. What we see there is the man we know, amplified by the freedom to let his compassion, his humanity, his intelligence, and yes, his sense of humor show. It’s a winning portrait that never rings false, and the eager participation of a widely varied crowd of interviewees to sing his praises—from George W. Bush to Susan Rice to Peter Staley to Bono—only reinforces its sincerity.

Of course, those who dislike Fauci are unlikely to be swayed by the sympathetic portrait offered by Hoffman and Tobias’ film—which, though it, like Fauci himself, is candid in acknowledging his missteps along the way, offers little in the way of negative commentary about its subject—and will doubtless brush it aside as “woke” propaganda. To answer that phenomenon, it might be best to offer a quote from the good doctor about why he is so hated by his critics. “I represent something that is uncomfortable for them. It’s called the truth.”

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