Equal

TV review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
Equal TV Poster Image
Extraordinary docuseries has period language and smoking.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

This documentary series underlines the powerful role LGBTQ+ people have had in history, whether we have heard their stories or not. Its sympathies are clearly on the side of those wishing to live authentic and happy lives free of harassment; significant themes of courage and integrity are visible. 

Positive Role Models

Many historical people whose stories are told in Equal are not famous, but their struggles are used to make points about equality and fairness. The series goes to pains to find and tell stories from women, people of color, people who are gender nonconformists, and others who were marginalized not just by mainstream society, but also by the (predominantly white and middle- to upper-class cis) gay rights movement from the 50s until today. Viewers will learn more about these historical trailblazers and may come to understand more about their importance to history and the courage and perseverance it took to make strides. 

Violence

Vintage footage of riots shows people throwing things and police officers hitting protestors with batons and pushing them; we also see people being arrested for crimes such as wearing clothing that doesn't match their assigned gender, or dancing with people of the same sex. Sexual violence, including rape, is referred to; one person living as a woman who was assigned male at birth says that she feared being raped in particular because rape for her means "getting killed, or at least getting your head bashed in." A police officer is shown forcing another man's hands down his pants and then handcuffing him; we also see a gender non-conforming woman in a slip crying as she's "examined" by doctors who discover her assigned-at-birth gender (we don't see the "examination"). 

Sex

Expect same- and opposite-sex kissing and flirting. We also see images of sex workers hailing passing cars while wearing scanty outfits. A spotlighted historical figure worked as the operator of a brothel; there are references to female sex workers and their male customers. 

Language

Cursing is infrequent: "f--k," "goddamn," "hell." Equal does contain a lot of language that's connected to gender and sexuality, sometimes used affectionately, sometimes as a slur: "queen," "invert," "deviate," "fag," "dyke," "fairies," "queer," "perverts," and so on. At one point, Porter cautions the viewer that LGBTQ+ slang has shifted over the years so "don't get twisted if you hear some outdated terms." 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Many scenes take place at bars or parties with drinking and smoking; no one acts drunk. The smoking is period-correct and frequent. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Equal is a docuseries about the long struggle for LGBTQ+ equality that focuses on important yet lesser-known milestones and trailblazers of the movement. In historical footage and reenactments of events, characters smoke: cigarettes, pipes, cigars. Smoking is particularly frequent in the segments set in the 1950s. Many scenes also take place at bars, with people drinking cocktails and liquor; no one acts drunk. Sexual violence is a component of some reenactments, like one in which a police officer forces another man's hands down his pants before arresting him, and another in which a gender non-conforming woman is forcibly examined by doctors (we see her lying down and crying in a white slip). Participants also talk of the fear of being raped, and of being beaten or even killed for their sexual or gender identity or expression. Historical footage shows police officers hitting protestors with batons and the protestors thowing things. Cursing is infrequent ("f--k," "goddamn," "hell") but language related to gender and sexuality is frequent, sometimes used as a slur and sometimes affectionately: "fairies," "queer," "fag," "dyke," "pervert" Equal tells the stories of a very diverse set of people from the standpoint of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual expression and identity, and socioeconomic status; all are given due respect and dignity. Significant themes of courage and integrity are visible. Viewers will definitely learn more about LGBTQ+ history and are likely to feel more empathetic with those who struggle and the struggle itself. 

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What's the story?

Most people have heard of the Stonewall Riots and Harvey Milk, but four-part documentary series EQUAL focuses on less well-known milestones in the struggle for LGBTQ+ equality. Stonewall happened three years after a similar event in a San Francisco diner; a San Francisco "female impersonator" and man of color José Sarria was actually the first openly gay person to run for public office in 1961, more than a decade before Harvey Milk became the first out gay man actually elected. Narrated by gay icon Billy Porter, EQUAL tells the stories of dozens of other less-sung luminaries: 1920s gender nonconformist Jack Starr, closeted playwright Lorraine Hansberry, trans rights pioneer Sylvia Rivera, and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin among them, giving them their historic due as trailblazers on the long path to freedom and equality. 

Is it any good?

With excellent storytelling, fantastic vintage photos and footage, stylish period reenactments, and Billy Porter's inimitable narration, this docuseries frames LGBTQ+ history as heroic and dazzling. Even those up on their queer history and culture haven't heard some of these stories: how lesbian pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon first met at an office party, the tragic tale of early gender non-conformist Lucy Hicks, the riot at San Francisco's Compton's Cafeteria that predated Stonewall by three years. Along with the great stories, often voiced by people who were there and did that, Equal beautifully drives home the way it felt to live in less tolerant times. "You could be arrested, you could lose your job, you'd be thrown out of your church, you might be institutionalized and thrown out of your house," says one participant.

Against that backdrop, those who found a way to live a more authentic life emerge as the folk heroes and revolutionaries they were. And Equal makes you feel that too, the thrill that early queer pioneers found in rising up against their oppressors. "By day we were ordinary people," says one founding member of 1950s gay group the Mattachine Society, "but by night we became wild radicals, determined to change the world." It's exciting stuff, and so are the reenactments that surround these historical details, which feature name actors: Cheyenne Jackson, Sara Gilbert, Samira Wiley, Anthony Rapp. In exquisite period costumes, the actors ably dramatize moments like the "lewd contact" arrest that catapulted Mattachine Society co-founder Dale Jennings into activism. Porter's narration adds some special flair too. Equal isn't the whole story of the struggle for LGBTQ+ equality; that's still being written. But as a whirlwind tour through some of the movement's highlights, it's a delight. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the intentions of documentary filmmaking: to entertain, inform, persuade, and inspire. Which category (or categories) best describes Equal? Why?

  • Families can talk about the importance of historical dramas about human rights. What story does Equal tell about the history of gay rights in the United States? How does it compare to other movies you've seen about minority groups fighting for equal rights?

  • How do the historical people spotlighted in this series demonstrate demonstrate courage and integrity? Why are these important character strengths

  • How does Equal show a range of gender roles and gender identities? Are gender non-conforming people treated with respect and dignity? Does this series demonstrate a spectrum of gender identities? Does it help you better understand the history of today's movement for equality for transgender people? 

TV details

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