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‘The Lady and the Dale’ explores transphobia in 1970s America

Docuseries opens window on uniquely American auto industry scandal

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The Lady and the Dale, gay news, Washington Blade
A scene from ‘The Lady and the Dale.’ (Photo courtesy HBO Max)

One of the advantages of living in a culture that obsessively records itself is that looking back on ourselves often delivers a healthy dose of 20/20 hindsight, not just on whatever piece of history we are trying to study but on all the things that have changed since it happened – and sometimes, on all the things that haven’t.

Such an experience is provided by “The Lady and the Dale,” HBO Max’s Duplass Brothers-produced docuseries that opens a window on 1970s America by relating the details of an implausible but true automotive industry scandal that captured headlines before fading into obscure cultural memory. In the process, it turns a quirky true-life tale of corporate chicanery into an eye-opening examination of the way our beliefs about gender shape the public narrative. It also forces us to ponder questions about how much those beliefs have evolved – if, indeed, they have evolved at all – in the years since the story it tells took place.

Directed by Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker, the four-episode chronicle spins the kind of yarn that might be considered too implausible to be believed if it hadn’t happened in real life. It’s more than revisiting a news story – it’s the saga of one Elizabeth Carmichael, who splashed into fame at the height of the 1970s oil crisis with her introduction of a fuel-efficient, radically redesigned automobile called the Dale. Armed with a prototype and a knack for promotion, she gathered an impressive stable of designers and engineers and started her own company, the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation, and began touting her innovative, three-wheeled vehicle to an American public in the grip of an OPEC-driven fuel shortage that had driven gas prices to record highs.

Taking advance orders to fund production, the upstart entrepreneur soon fell under suspicion for her seemingly outrageous promises of 70-mile-per gallon fuel economy and a quick rollout; when technical setbacks cast even more doubt on her claims, increased scrutiny from media and law enforcement uncovered a hidden past of shady scams, audacious escapes, and concealed identity, culminating in the revelation that she was both a longtime fugitive from justice and a transgender woman. Choosing to defend herself in court against charges of fraud and business code violations, she found herself also waging an uphill battle with misogyny and transphobia, and she ultimately opted instead to pull a decade-and-a-half-long disappearing act before authorities were finally able to catch up with her.

Assembled in the slick, now-familiar “docu-tainment” style that has become the fashion with high-profile shows of its ilk, “The Lady and the Dale” takes a deceptively bemused tone from the start. Though considerable footage exists of Elizabeth Carmichael from her days in the spotlight, much of her life can be glimpsed only through a few family photos and home movies, and the show makes up for this dearth of material by mining those images to create clever, quirky animations illustrating her story. These visual aids might seem too light-hearted to accompany a tale of deception, greed, crime, and systemic bigotry, but as more is revealed about the complex and conflicted underlying morality of the story, their whimsy seems more like irony – the kind that might arise from living through decades of oppression from a society oblivious to its own role as oppressor.

That is, of course, precisely the viewpoint Cammilleri and Drucker want you to take. As they piece together the details of Carmichael’s notorious misadventures – through interviews, news and courtroom footage, and commentary by experts adding a contemporary perspective – they slyly, almost subversively peel back the convoluted layers of circumstance to reveal the unmistakable face of transphobia cowering at the core of her story. Using the tall-tale appeal of their subject, they draw their audience into an “if I only knew then what I know now” retrospect on an era when most Americans saw no difference between a transgender woman and a drag queen. The archival news coverage they show us is rife with misgendering and dead-naming, interviews with authorities and journalists assert the presumed untrustworthiness of a “man posing as a woman,” and the enthusiasm with which media and authorities cast Carmichael as a villain and raises a now-obvious red flag about the real reasons behind her merciless persecution. By the time the series reaches its halfway mark, it becomes clear that, while she may well have been culpable in the events that led to the charges against her, she was really being punished for the crime of being trans.

At the same time, the series provides an unexpectedly positive parallel real-life narrative, in which Carmichael managed to successfully transition while continuing in her role as head of a household, maintaining the love and support of a family who stayed with her even through years of living on the lam. Through interviews with children and other relatives, we learn about a warm and loving person who was fully accepted on her own terms by a wife and kids that stayed loyal despite an unstable and often dire lifestyle. Couple these with the descriptions coming from associates from the Dale days of a charismatic, dynamic leader who inspired their faith and commitment even as the project fell apart, and you have a very different person from the unscrupulous grifter in the portrait painted by the authorities, journalists, and other public voices who led the charge against her.

The reason behind this gap in perception between the people who knew Carmichael and those who knew only an image they themselves had helped to create seems obvious. It’s why visibility is such an important facet in the fight for acceptance – the more we become aware that the people we demonize are people we actually know, the more our attitudes change and our empathy grows. But while this might seem like a no-brainer in 2021, it was not quite so clear in 1974. That it is so readily apparent now is testament to the power of hard work and activism.

Of course, not everyone in our society will be surprised by the revelations of hindsight bestowed by “The Lady in the Dale.” For trans audiences, the ingrained transphobia it explores is an all-too-familiar part of everyday life, a point underscored in the series by the presence of several trans commentators, who provide a scholarly and informed cultural perspective throughout. And while the distance of time allows the luxury of acknowledging how far we’ve come, it’s worth noting that at least one journalist interviewed for the film doubles down on the same transphobic bile he spewed forth when he covered the Carmichael case nearly five decades ago.

That’s what makes “The Lady and the Dale” much more than just the latest must-watch distraction on streaming TV. It’s also an essential piece of trans activism, wrapped in an entertaining package that is now being played on screens all across America for people who would likely have never clicked “play” on such a thing – and that’s a con job that Elizabeth Carmichael herself would be proud of.

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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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