HBO Max’s ‘Equal’ is engaging, funky Queer docuseries

Photo of HBO Max's Docuseries, "Equal"
HBO Max/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

The new docuseries “Equal” seeks to be a fresh insight into the earliest stages of Queer visibility — years before the Stonewall riots even began. Set to premiere Oct. 22 on HBO Max, the first three episodes bring a comprehensive yet lively assessment of Queer resistance’s early stages. 

Centering on a few LGBTQ+ trailblazers per episode, the show unpacks the impact of their Queerness — often at great personal cost, telling their story in an authentic way. The show provides an engaging mix of primary source audio and video footage, interviews with the documentary subjects themselves, supplementary videos of actor portrayals, bright graphics and delightful narration. The show has so much going for it, making it an insightful take on Queer history.

Unlike many other narratives of early Queer history, the series takes time to reflect upon the Black Queer icons leading the Civil Rights Movement, carving out their stories in the third episode. The series does not shy away from the notion that police officers and Queer community members are inherently at odds, fighting against each other in totality during the movement’s early stages. Furthermore, the series adequately shows the gay rights movement’s beginnings as heavily criminalized, linked to communism and leftist ideologies, forcing Queer people to be under constant threat of exposure. 

One of the show’s biggest strengths is Billy Porter’s impassioned narration. While somewhat sparse, Porter’s voice helps to liven up the show’s traditionally dreary documentary format with modern lingo, allowing audiences to stay engaged. Infused with effective thematic messaging, such as the urgency of the Queer community rising up as a collective against injustice, his commentary helps to guide the show along with ease. 

Some of the dramatizations look intentionally staged, the actors often posing at the camera for dramatic effect, mouthing the narration as scenes are projected upon their faces. These spliced moments can feel cringeworthy, adding little to the thought-provoking firsthand audio and videos, though their presence in the documentary makes sense. Shots of these historical figures standing in a room, often fiddling with their jackets to humanize them, feel like a way to just attach celebrity to the project, not making the series’s message much more pressing. 

Nevertheless, these modern portrayals of Queer icons are exemplary in themselves. Notable Queer actors such as Samira Wiley and Anthony Rapp portray the visionaries who came before them, reaffirming the importance of LGBTQ+ visibility in casting. The production team also refreshingly features Queer leadership, as the second episode was directed by Kimberly Reed, who identifies as transgender. 

Despite the series’ successes, its biggest pitfall is in the early episodes, in which it fails to assert the interconnectedness between the subsets of Queer identity covered in these first three episodes: the early struggles of gay and lesbian folks, the early ideas of transgender individuals and the proliferation of Queer social justice pioneers of color. These episodes tackle different aspects of the early Queer movement, and the season’s later change of directors only adds to this disjointed feeling, as there is a clear shift in the second episode. While continuously asserting the need to rise against the forces that oppress Queer people, the series has a hard time actually suggesting tangible action, as some of the narrative language would have you believe it tries to. 

Above all else, “Equal” serves as an accessible yet informative gateway into pivotal moments of Queer history, a refreshed resource centered around the bravery of Queer people, intended for Queer people and told by Queer people. Whether viewers have seasoned knowledge of LGBTQ+ history or this is their first exposure to it, the show provides new insight into how far Queer acceptance once seemed, highlighting stories that may not have once been told in a positive light. 

Caitlin Keller covers LGBTQ+ media. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @caitlinkeller20.