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‘Pose’ on FX: An earnest, romantic family drama about gay and trans people of color

Marrying art and politics is never easy, but Ryan Murphy’s show hits the sweet spot

This, as promised by the headline, will be an essay about Pose. But first, we have to get something out of the way: Stonewall is the worst film I have ever seen.

The 2015 film from Independence Day director Roland Emmerich was ostensibly about the Stonewall riots. But it found so many ways to be terrible that if you told me now that it was an elaborate exercise in trolling, my response would be, “OK, that makes sense.”

Stonewall needlessly rewrote queer history, shoehorning in a made-up white ingenue from Middle America to drive its story while sidelining the tales of real-life trans women of color such as Marsha P. Johnson who were instrumental to the fateful Christopher Street revolt. It billed itself as the definitive, celebratory story of the start of the modern gay rights movement, but instead it was self-indulgent and meandering with bargain-bin production values.

Schlock like Stonewall is why audiences have learned to temper their expectations when it comes to fictive narratives about queer people of color. Even in the queer cultural canon, people of color and trans people are largely missing from stage or screen, especially as central characters. This spring has offered renewed celebration of The Boys in the Band and Angels in America, pivotal works both, on Broadway. When it comes to television, Showtime broke serious ground with Queer as Folk and The L Word, making way for HBO’s Looking years later. Films such as Milk, The Normal Heart, The Kids Are All Right, Brokeback Mountain, Dallas Buyers Club, But I’m A Cheerleader and Transamerica netted high praise and told valued stories about what it means to be queer — if you are white. And if you aren’t, better luck finding yourself within the pages of James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker or the staged works of Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose play provided the source material for Moonlight. As for television with a majority-minority queer cast, there’s Noah’s Arc and … Noah’s Arc.

Now there’s Pose, a new FX drama from Ryan Murphy about New York’s 1980s drag ball culture, which premiered Sunday night. Pose debuted a mere three nights into June, which marks the start of Pride season in America because it’s the month the Stonewall riots began. Pose is Paris is Burning come to life, mixed with a dollop or two of Fame. It is the sort of thing that makes you offer up prayers of hope to Mother Ru: Please don’t let this be another Stonewall-sized Hindenburg.

In the queer cultural canon of Angels in America and Brokeback Mountain, people of color and trans people are largely missing from stage or screen, especially as central characters.

Before anyone had seen a minute of television, it was clear that Murphy and FX had paid attention to the politics of the production. At the Television Critics Association press tour in January, Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk were saying all the right things about listening and humbling themselves as architects of a closed-off world in which they had little to no expertise. FX made sure journalists knew that the show’s cast was composed of trans actresses of color. The word “intersectionality” came up a lot.

“The writers’ room is a very intimate space, so no question is off-limits,” Pose writer and activist Janet Mock told me at the press tour. “There’s a stripping away of ego because we’re all on the same level.

“There were a lot of conversations about blackness, about colorism, about hair textures — that’s why you see the girls all with naturals. It was through the conversation we had about what it means to be a person of color, but then a person of color in the ’80s, who’s a woman, who’s also a trans woman, who’s also poor. All of that stuff comes in, and so you have to break it down to the very basic elements and then not make it too conscious that we’re in the 2000s writing about the 1980s.”

But what about the show itself? I’ve watched the first four episodes, and I found it earnest, romantic, heartbreaking and instantly addictive. It’s clear that the discussions of the politics of the show were merely a foundation from which an engaging, unique family drama could emerge. Pose is lush and expensive in a way that few stories about queer people of color are, and its audience took notice.

Murphy is no stranger to telling the stories of gay characters. He gave the world The Assassination of Gianni Versace and, before that, Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) and Wade “Unique” Adams (Alex Newell) in Glee. But in his enthusiasm to portray the torture of being a gay outcast in high school, Murphy could sometimes forget the trauma stirred up by watching a kid get thrown into a dumpster or slushied, week after week after week. And Glee was contemporary. How would those inclinations show up in a period piece like Pose, set in 1987, with the AIDS crisis raging through New York but still worlds away from the activism of Larry Kramer and a nascent ACT UP? It wasn’t just commonplace to hear Donna Summer on the radio, it was commonplace to hear schoolchildren taunting each other with anti-gay slurs. The cruelty of 1987 was arguably far more cutting than anything in 2010, when Glee began airing. But Pose is balanced. It doesn’t shy away from how awful anti-gay parents could be toward their gay children, as viewers see when Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) is kicked out of the house with only a backpack and coat for having a gay flesh magazine under his mattress. But Pose’s characters are not defined by their suffering.

The rejection Damon faces ends up being necessary emotional grounding for the show, and to understanding ball culture. Beneath the wigs and furs, there is community and refuge for people rejected by polite society. Set against the backdrop of ‘80s ball and drag culture is a show about how so many people like Damon relied on their “chosen” families to keep them alive.

The storylines and conflicts are connected by Pray Tell, Pose’s master of ceremonies, played by Tony winner Billy Porter, a veteran who brings effortless magnetism to a show full of new and promising talent. Dominique Jackson, the actress who plays house mother Elektra Abundance, offers the sort of withering reads, with every syllable articulated, that would make Dorian Corey proud.

I hope Pose catches fire. It is a gem, and it’s clear that Murphy, 52, has his eye on how he and his work will be remembered.

“He talked about legacy-building in the sense of bringing other people in that he could help develop,” Mock said, explaining why Murphy approached her to work on Pose when she’d never written for television before.

So often, Murphy’s leading ladies have been straight cisgender women deployed as high camp. It was as though he kept birthing new characters with the expectation that they be re-created in the latest drag revues. And that’s fine. But in Pose, Murphy has tapped something else: the sort of heartfelt stories and honest emotion that result from going straight to the source.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.