Episodes 4 & 5: 1980s:“Underground” & 1990s:“The Culture Wars”
Executive produced by Alex Stapleton, Danny Gabai, Kama Kaina & Stacy Scripter for VICE Studios and Killer Films’ Christine Vachon & Sydney Foos
Reviewed by Bruce Ward
Pride, FX Networks’ ambitious and compelling six-part docuseries on the LGBTQ+ movement, gives individual indie filmmakers the daunting opportunity to encapsulate the LGBTQ+ experience, from the 1950s to the “2000s,” in 45-minute segments per decade.
The AIDS epidemic is featured prominently in Episode 4: “Underground”, and in Episode 5:“The Culture Wars”, the 1980s and ‘90s decades, while left out entirely in Episode 6: “Y2Gay”, which spans the two decades of the new millennium.
With so many issues to grapple with in twenty years of “Y2Gay”, it is understandable that AIDS may take a back burner. But no mention of PrEP or U=U feels like a lost opportunity to follow up on the 1980s and ‘90s episodes.
Episode 4, “Underground”, focuses on NYC’s East Village, and immediately catches the vibe of the ‘80s, with the cacophony of honking yellow cabs, the hairstyles, the fashions, and, appropriately, Michael Musto, the Village Voice columnist and quintessential nightclub bon vivant of the 1980s.
Musto captures the mood of New York City during those early years, when he states, “Everyone was filled with grief, terror, and rage. But you know what? The nightlife kept going….We were more bonded than ever. We had to leave the house and connect.”
And so we are brought, through archival photos and footage, to the Pyramid club, the drag balls, and the creators of the East Village scene, thumbing their noses at Reagan’s America.
Much of the archival footage shown here is from videographer, Nelson Sullivan, who filmed over 1,200 hours, from 1982–1989. And his images are among the most moving of the series. Through his lens, he captured a scene that was losing all of its artists.
Ann Northrup, the activist-journalist who figures prominently in dramatic, rarely-seen footage of the ACT UP demonstration inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, also speaks to the importance of Sullivan’s powerful images, when she says, “I’d like to think his archives are as valuable as the Egyptian pyramids. They tell you about queer life in the eighties in New York.”
In Episode 5: “The Culture Wars”, the focus shifts to San Francisco. As with “Underground”, the filmmaker examines viewpoints not always given visibility: The writer Jewelle Gomez, talking about how the Castro was “almost hollowed out,” and recalling the vital role of lesbians as caregivers during that time, and activist Tez Anderson representing the issues of long-term survivors.
Anderson states, “AIDS went from being a death sentence to HIV being a chronic, manageable illness. And for a lot of us it took a while for that to all kind of make sense.”
In addition to to some amazing archival footage, what makes these two episodes the most compelling is the inclusion of the issues of sexism, racism, and class, in addition to homophobia. We hear the often untold stories of lesbians, people of color, and individuals who are transgender and work as sex workers, who often felt disenfranchised from the more visible and “acceptable” activism, during those early years of the AIDS epidemic.
In addition to playing on FX, the series is streaming on Hulu.
Bruce Ward is A&U’s Drama Editor, and he has been writing about the AIDS epidemic since its inception. His plays, Lazarus Syndrome and Decade: Life in the ’80s, have been produced throughout the U.S. Bruce was the original Director of the CDC National AIDS Hotline, and he was honored by POZ magazine as one of 2015’s POZ 100. You may follow him at: bdwardbos.wordpress.com.