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Washington Blade: LGBTQ News, Politics, LGBTQ Rights, Gay News: Max brings history to the masses in entertaining ‘Book of Queer’


Pride month has officially arrived, and that means it’s time again for all our TV providers to join the rest of the corporate world in falling over itself to show its support the only way it knows how – by marketing directly to us and letting us know that, yes, they want our money, too.

We can’t resist a little glib snark, but truthfully, we’re not complaining. After being ignored for decades by the mainstream, a little overcompensation once a year is fine by us. That’s especially true when the content that rolls out on our screens is well-crafted, authentic, and entertaining without pandering to its audience – which, as anyone who has binge-watched through the “LGBTQ+” section of their streaming service of choice can easily tell you is not always the case.

That’s why we chose to start our Pride month viewing with a series that’s not even brand new. “The Book of Queer,” which is part of the debut rollout on Max (the rebranded streaming service formerly known as HBO Max), originally aired on Discovery + for Pride 2022. Now, it’s available to a wider audience just in time for Pride 2023, and coupled with its focus on queer history, the timing is too perfect not to bring it to your attention.

Created by Harvard-and-Cambridge-educated historian Dr. Eric Cervini – likely familiar to many of our readers via a popular social media presence built around his “Queer History 101” newsletter – “Book of Queer” is a five-episode crash course that tells the stories of significant queer (or purportedly queer) individuals who have made their mark on human civilization across the millennia through re-enactments by an all-queer ensemble cast, illuminating them with commentary from an array of expert “talking heads” who are both erudite and accessible. It’s a familiar format, obviously, but this time it comes with a twist – the re-enactments take the form of comedic sketches, reimagining its famous historical subjects through a contemporary lens and turning them into campy (and absurdly anachronistic) avatars of defiantly queer empowerment.

Those accustomed to a more straightforward documentary approach might be put off by this approach, and we can’t blame them; the irreverence of the very first episode, which explores queer leaders of government throughout history and depicts Abraham Lincoln as a flamboyantly sex-positive avatar for queer empowerment, is by itself enough to raise hackles. Considering the reverence with which most of these individuals are viewed today, it’s inevitable that many viewers will find the show more than a little transgressive.

Yet even as it plays fast and loose with the accuracy of its portrayals – which, for the record, is a deliberate tactic, not a clumsy effort to contemporize and dumb them down for a modern audience – it is scrupulous about making sure we aren’t fooled by its wacky style into thinking that it doesn’t take any of this stuff seriously. Though it plays on all the familiar tropes and stereotypes of modern queer culture – to the point that we might be offended by some of its humor if it came in a show not conceived and executed by queer creators – it is always quick to set the record straight, not just with the savvy, well-researched insight of the commentators, but with clever visual aids like infographics and pop-up supplemental facts; like Cervini’s online history lessons, there’s a light tone to the whole affair, giving everything a fresh sense of fun that makes it all feel very much like a product tailored for the reputed shallowness and short attention span of the internet age — but that doesn’t mean it’s not dedicated to honoring the history it relates to us by remaining strictly aligned with the facts.

Indeed, in many ways it uses its cheeky burlesque of history to amplify and drive home some of its most convincing points. How better to underscore its arguments – the nonbinary identity of Egyptian monarch Ahkenaten, or Abe Lincoln’s committed sexual relationships with the lengthy list of male “roommates” who shared his bed (yes, really) before becoming president, and those examples are just from the first installment – than by comically portraying them as if they were the modern equivalent of their “types” in the queer community? More than that, when we see these histories presented in this way, the arguments of “traditional” (i.e. heterosexual) historians that dismiss such theories as unsubstantiated speculation seem even more ludicrous than they did before – and that’s saying a lot.

In truth it’s more than a little thrilling to see the show’s unequivocal assertions about the queerness of its subjects – all backed by rigorously cited sources and extensively researched anecdotal evidence – presented without the equivocating disclaimers that usually accompany that discussion. And while it may take most of the first episode for some viewers to warm up to its madcap approach (though more casual audiences may be comfortable with it from the start), it quickly reveals its value goes beyond simply keeping us entertained. By episode 2, not just in spite but because of its humor, it’s able to evoke unexpected – and unexpectedly powerful – tears over the death of Alan Turing, and to remind us that Renaissance artists like Da Vinci and Michelangelo lived under constant threat of prosecution, punishment, and even execution for sodomy.

Indeed, if there’s one common thread that runs through all these histories, it’s the ever-present suppression, persecution, and worse that has been imposed upon queer people across the centuries; if “Book of Queer” makes us laugh, it does so in the spirit of all the pioneers who came before it, combating the cruelty and bigotry of our oppressors with the kind of fierce, subversive comedic artillery that easily pierces their ludicrous assumptions and attitudes about us.

That, as much as anything, drives home the importance of a show like “Book of Queer” in the here and now, as LGBTQ+ life and culture faces a resurgence of bigotry and legislation aimed at pushing us back into the closeted, underground life we’ve had to endure for millennia. That importance is clearly not lost on Cervini, who despite the involvement of high-profile guest narrators like Margaret Cho and the late Leslie Jordan emerges as the show’s brightest star. Appearing in each episode to provide “footnotes” that give further historical context for each of the stories, his twink-ish youthful appearance and mischievously fey charm belie his status as a Pulitzer-nominated author and historian (for his 2020 book, “The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. The United States of America”), but the authority and comprehensive knowledge with which he speaks leave no doubt of his ability to lead a generation of young queer scholars and activists fighting into the future, armed with the certainty of facts and an understanding of a history that has been buried by our oppressors for far too long.

“Book of Queer” might not be your typical documentary, but really, do we want a queer documentary to be “typical”? It’s clear that Dr. Eric Cervini does not, and after seeing this one, we are inclined to agree with him.

The post Max brings history to the masses in entertaining ‘Book of Queer’ appeared first on Washington Blade: LGBTQ News, Politics, LGBTQ Rights, Gay News.

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