Roush Review: Giving ‘Equal’ Time to Gay-Rights Pioneers

Alexandra Gray Equal Lucy Hicks Henderson

Breathlessly narrating the fascinating stories of early pioneers in the pre-Stonewall LGBTQ-rights movement, Emmy winner Billy Porter (Pose) glibly warns, “Don’t get it twisted if you hear some outdated terms, OK?”

Fair enough. Attitudes have come a long way. Even so, while the four-part docuseries Equal sheds welcome light on a too-easily-forgotten history of pain, oppression, and revolution, its cartoonishly stylized and relentlessly shallow approach is more tiring than engaging.

Which is too bad, because there’s nothing cheesy about people risking jobs, freedom and even their lives by refusing to conform to society’s norms. “In 1944, my secret could get you killed,” declares Lucy Hicks Anderson, a dynamic subject of the series’ strongest episode, about early trans people. Assigned male at birth, Lucy lived as a woman, enjoying success in Oxnard, California, society as a chef, hostess and brothel madam. Jailed for fraud for lying about gender on her marriage license, she remained defiant.

Lucy’s story would make quite the movie. But in the sort of thin dramatization that typifies Equal, Lucy (embodied by Alexandra Grey) speaks trite dialogue directly into the camera. This preachy and artificial device only manages to distance the viewer from the compelling details of her extraordinary life.

Even when the subjects are better known, like A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry (The Handmaid’s Tale‘s Samira Wiley) and high-profile civil-rights activist Bayard Rustin (Keiynan Lonsdale), their urgent perspectives are muddied by the clumsy, pretentious storytelling. In the concluding chapter on the Stonewall riot of 1969, actors speak their lines amid flashing lights, the sort of recreation you might expect from a low-budget off-off-Broadway polemic.

Equal is on firmer ground when sticking to archival sources, including oral testimonies from those who organized, published, and protested for gay equality during a time when just going to a bar could result in arrest and public disgrace. These stories need to be told, but deserve to be told better.  

Equal, Series Premiere, Thursday, Oct. 22, HBO Max