Created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, and produced and co-written by Janet Mock and Our Lady J, Pose is the groundbreaking new series about the ballroom scene and the transgender community in 1987 New York City. Premiering Sunday, June 3, the FX show features the largest LGBT cast—including five transgender series regulars—seen on TV.
As Blanca, MJ Rodriguez plays a transgender woman who leaves the House of Abundance—led by Elecktra (Dominique Robinson)—to form her own house, which includes younger and homeless members of the LGBT community, Angel (Indya Moore) and Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain). Rounding out the cast is Billy Porter, who brings viewers into the ballroom as announcer and mentor Pray Tell.
Through Matt and Stan—played by James Van Der Beek and Evan Peters, respectively—the series also offers glimpses into the Trump organization, then run by President Donald Trump, during the rise of his popularity and luxury brand. While Trump himself is not a character, the show does provide little Easter eggs about what’s happening both in the city and with the business at that time. Perhaps, and most importantly, it shows the extreme contrast in the way two disparate communities—affluent white people and the LGBT community of color—exist in Manhattan.
When the show was first announced, many compared the series to Paris Is Burning. While elements of the groundbreaking documentary can certainly be seen in the series—and it is part of our viewing guide—it’s not the only film or TV show that is essential to understanding and appreciating New York in the 1980s, the ballroom scene, the LGBT community—particularly transgender people of color—and the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Paris Is Burning
As mentioned, Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary is practically a template for the scripted series. Filmed in the late-’80s, the documentary chronicles the ballroom scene through the lives of several black and Latino transgender women and drag queens from different houses in New York City. Going beyond the competitions, the film showed what it was like to be a queer person of color in the city, struggling to survive amid poverty, homophobia, and the AIDS crisis. The film is particularly worth rewatching because of how much Pose’s various storylines are inspired by what happened to the real-life characters documented.
Considered the unofficial sequel to Paris Is Burning, this 2016 documentary returned viewers to the ballroom scene at a time when trans rights and the Black Lives Matter movement were making headlines. The new film benefits from (a somewhat) evolved society that now has the vocabulary to discuss and describe the transgender experience in a more nuanced way. The most scary and disturbing element of the film, however, is the fact that the same issues from the late-’80s—poverty, racism, homophobia, and AIDS—still deeply affect the young LGBT community today. It’s also worth noting the runway performer, Twiggy Pucci Garcon, who co-wrote the film and granted access to filming her dancers, is also a consultant on Pose.
The Viceland docuseries takes audiences inside the real-life world of the current ballroom competitions in New York City as it follows the lives of six voguers—Tati 007, Alex Mugler, Jelani Mizrahi, Lolita Balenciaga, and Relish Milan. Precious Ebony—in a similar role to Pray Tell—educates the audiences in the world of voguing with explanations about the terminology, the competition’s many rules, and all the house rivalries. The show even features an appearance by Tati’s mother Leiomy Maldonado, “The Wonder Woman of Vogue” and star of Nike’s BeTrue ad campaign, who serves as a choreographer on Pose.
Strike a Pose and Madonna: Truth or Dare
The two documentaries serve as bookends on the same topic: Madonna’s gay backup dancers, who joined her on the 1990 Blond Ambition Tour. While Truth or Dare is very much about Madonna first, her dancers became breakout stars—with Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza, who emerged from the ballroom scene, helping to bring vogue to mainstream audiences. Strike a Pose, meanwhile, shows what happened tp Xtravaganza—now a consultant on the FX series—and the other dancers after the tour and the spotlight began to fade.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
The Netflix documentary re-examines the 1992 death of the transgender legend and activist, who was found floating in the Hudson River. While the film largely is an investigation into her death, which was ruled a suicide despite the community’s belief that she was murdered, it provides context to the scene leading up to the 1980s. Johnson was a pioneer of the late-’60s, leading the 1969 riot at Stonewall, before becoming known as the “mayor of Christopher Street.”
Perhaps no film—at least documentary—demonstrates what it’s like to be a black gay man in 1980s America than Tongues United directed by and starring Marlon Riggs. The ambitious project blended documentary with fiction in an attempt to showcase the black gay identity, that was often hidden at the time due to oppressive layers of homophobia, especially in the black community, HIV and AIDS, and the slow evolution of LGBT rights at the time.
The 2016 independent film from director Damon Cardasis and starring Moore and Rodriguez tells the story about a teenage boy who has taken an interest in voguing. After running away from an abusive household, he finds a sanctuary in a LGBT homeless shelter in the basement of a Manhattan church, where bonds with a small group of transgender and gay friends. The film mirrors the journey Damon, an aspiring dancer, embarks on in Pose as he finds shelter and support in Blanca’s new house after being kicked out of his home.
While this 2015 drama about two transgender sex workers living in Los Angeles doesn’t have any direct influence on Pose, it’s one of the few notable and acclaimed scripted narratives about queer and transgender people of color. Tangerine was so well-received that Magnolia Pictures, the film’s distributor, and producers Mark and Jay Duplass launched an Oscar campaign for its breakout stars Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, who later became the first transgender actor to win an Independent Spirit Award.
A Fantastic Woman
Like Tangerine, Sebastian Lelio’s Oscar-winning film has no direct connection to Pose outside of the fact that it’s a rare, stunning scripted narrative about the transgender experience. This time, Daniela Vega plays a woman whose life is upended when her boyfriend is taken to the hospital where he dies of a brain aneurysm. She’s then confronted by and has to deal with her boyfriend’s transphobic family and police, who believe she has something to do with his death. Like Saturday Church, the film blends fantasy with reality to create a powerful story about love and loss.
Leave It on the Floor
Big budget films like Chicago and Dreamgirls may have brought the glitz and glam, but Leave It on the Floor certainly brought a bit of originality to the movie musical genre by adapting the ballroom scene for an original story starring future Hamilton actor Ephraim Sykes. Ultimately, it earned little attention—but the 2011 film was an earnest effort by director Sheldon Larry, screenwriter Glenn Gaylord, and Beyoncé music director Kim Burse, who all thought to capture to visual and musical dynamic of these underground runways.
Trump: An American Dream and Dirty Money (“The Confidence Man”)
While Trump is not a physical character on the series, his presence is certainly felt on the show±Murphy has never been shy about adding his own commentary into his series. And since Stan (Peters) and his boss, Matt (Beek), work at the Trump Organization, it’s worth checking out these two documentaries—both on Netflix—about the company’s impact on the Manhattan skyline and the brand of luxury Trump created for himself. They reveal just how much of Trump’s existence was bravado and world of excess that presumably only helped create more of a divide in class in a city that was still pulling itself out of a financial slump.
The Central Park Five
While the show has nothing to do with the 1989 Central Park jogger case—when a white woman was brutally assaulted and raped, leading to the arrest and conviction of four black and one Puerto Rican teenage boys—Ken Burns 2012 documentary about the crime provides a lot of context about what New York City was like in the late-’80s and the extreme divide in race and class that existed in Manhattan, from Harlem down to the Financial District. The case even invoked Trump to put out a full-page ad at the time, calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in the state. The ad is said to have stoked racial tensions in the city and even today, Trump still believes that the five teenagers are guilty even though a convicted serial later confessed to being responsible for the crime.
Angels in America
Back on Broadway, Angels in America is Ted Kushner’s groundbreaking and revolutionary two-part play about the intersecting lives of gay men in 1980s New York City, dealing with issues of homophobia and the AIDs crisis. It shows just how deadly an AIDS diagnosis was at the time—with little access to meds and healthcare for LGBT community. Those who could get it had money like Roy Cohn, a closeted lawyer who contracts HIV and is based on the real-life Roy Cohn, who notably represented and influenced Trump early in his career. The HBO version is landmark television, with Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright, and Patrick Wilson in key roles.
The Normal Heart
Pre-dating Angels in America, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is another play that depicts the AIDS/HIV crisis affecting the gay community in New York City. Set in the early-’80s, it chronicles the rise of the epidemic through interwoven lives of gay men. Adapted for HBO by Ryan Murphy, the 2014 film stars Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, and Jim Parsons—and offers only a white perspective on this issue at the time. However, it, like Angels in America, demonstrates the loss and suffering the LGBT community was going through as a whole.