tens across the board

A Legendary Legacy

By its very nature, this show was destined to be, well, legendary. Photo: HBO Max

Okay, I’ll say it: As a Black queer person, I found this past Pride Month really strange. A global pandemic that disproportionately targets Black people, combined with the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor reinvigorating the Black Lives Matter movement, transformed a month typically devoted to vodka sodas, disco music, and corporate-sponsored rainbow flags into a visceral and unflinching look into how little American society values Black lives. Through a seemingly unending series of tragic events, Black lives, specifically Black queer lives, have been thrust into the center of the narrative for the first time in my lifetime. Finally, Black queer people, and, more specifically, Black trans people, occupied a larger part of our national consciousness via massive protests like the March for Black Trans Lives in Brooklyn and a pronounced focus on charities devoted to protecting the Black trans community, like For the Gworls, the Okra Project, and G.L.I.T.S. This June, we were able to step out of the darkness and into the spotlight. You have to imagine that had Marsha P. Johnson lived to see this day, she’d be proud.

While I genuinely appreciate the fervor with which I see white and POC allies supporting Black queer lives, I can’t help but linger on the price Black queer folks have had to pay to finally get the world’s attention — the physical and emotional toll it has taken to get the world to see us. Yes, some modicum of visibility has been achieved, but at what cost? During Pride Month alone, we lost Tony McDade, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, Riah Milton, Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, and 17-year-old Brayla Stone. Sure, it feels good to make progress, to be seen, but it’s hard to enjoy your moment in the sun when you’re also standing in the shadow of those you’ve lost along the way.

Enter, voguing down the runway, HBO Max’s Legendary, an unapologetic celebration of Black queerness. By its very nature, the show was destined to be, well, legendary. It’s the first major-network reality competition series dedicated to ball culture, a Black queer art form first exposed to the mainstream by Paris Is Burning and recently reexposed by Ryan Murphy’s Pose. (For those crying out about RuPaul erasure, Drag Race is based in drag performance, which is distinct from ballroom. If you don’t believe me, read a book!)

Legendary — which this week wrapped its stunning first season and confirmed it will return for a second — pits eight preexisting houses against one another in a series of balls, crowning a new top house each week and eliminating a bottom house until only one remains. The prize? The Legendary trophy and $100,000, the largest award in ballroom history. In categories ranging from “Circus Bezerkus” to “Face” to “Wild Wild West,” the houses truly leave everything on the floor as they battle it out for the title of Superior House. The looks? Stunning. The stunts? Sickening. The drops? Of the death variety. It’s a master class in creativity and showmanship that overwhelmingly centers Black queer bodies, showcasing their beauty and ability at a time when the world needs to see that most.

While the balls are incredible to watch, my favorite part of Legendary involves the action that happens backstage. Shot entirely in black-and-white, Legendary’s backstage camera footage catches the contestants’ real-time reactions to the performances and the judges’ critiques. Seeing reality contestants offstage isn’t a novel concept (hell, RuPaul made a whole spinoff show out of it), but the backstage camera cuts through the noise, revealing the tender yet ferocious heart that lies beneath all the bells, whistles, gags, and reveals.

These bite-size clips are interspersed throughout the competition, punctuating the performances with raw, honest depictions of Black queerness at its most visceral and vulnerable. Sometimes filled with gratitude to have earned the judges’ praise, sometimes seething after being unceremoniously chopped, the contestants show the full extent of themselves in these backstage confessionals in ways that can’t be seen during a performance or in the heavily produced confessional and rehearsal footage. In a show that celebrates the range and nuance of expressions of Black queerness, the backstage camera provides a window directly into the Black queer experience and all the pathos and joy and sadness and anger that comes with it.

“The category is ‘Three Fab’ fucking ‘Mice,’” complains House of St. Laurent mother Michell’e, a Black trans woman wearing a mouse costume, who is visibly upset after getting chopped from the ball. “There aren’t even mice up there right now. We gave mice. Fuck that.” Moments later, members of the House of Balmain are too upset to discuss getting chopped, walking by and waving the camera out of their faces. These rare moments of vulnerability caught backstage — of the sadness and frustration of being subject to circumstances outside your control — humanize these seemingly superhuman contestants, who can twirl on a dime and flip their bodies in ways most of us can only dream of. The competitors are not only super-talented but also super-tough, which should come as no surprise. You have to be tough to survive in competitions, just as you have to be tough to survive in this world as a Black queer person. After coming in second in the “Face” competition, House of Lanvin mother Eyrika, another Black trans woman, says, “I don’t feel I need to switch anything, because I am face. I’m legendary face. So at the end of the day, they’ll see me again.” The backstage camera catches the vulnerability and the toughness all at once and provides a safe space for the contestants to let their emotions surface in complicated and inspiring ways. No, Eyrika did not win the “Face” category, but nevertheless she is face and no one can take that away from her. In this ten-second backstage clip, both Eyrika’s pain and her tenacity shine through.

Is Legendary a perfect reality television show? No. It can feel overproduced at times, and I simply don’t have the time or the emotional bandwidth to get into the Jameela Jamil of it all. But despite these relatively small imperfections, Legendary offers something very few television shows will: a small peek into the psyche, heart, and soul of a Black queer person. The stakes are high — perhaps higher backstage than onstage — because you can see people respond in real time to circumstances beyond their control that directly affect their lives. In many ways, it’s a microcosm of what it’s like being a Black queer person in America: constantly having to recalibrate and adjust due to external forces just to stay alive.

This past Pride Month, the ability to simply function — let alone thrive — as a Black queer person felt like a superhuman feat, a miracle of sorts, and Legendary serves us miracles left and right in every twist and turn and dip and drop. But in its smaller, black-and-white moments, it also reveals that underneath the superpowered strength of the vast array of individuals who comprise the Black LGBTQ community is a person, just like anyone else. Onstage, we get the privilege of watching Black queer people be truly exceptional, and backstage we get the privilege of watching these same people be emotional and heartfelt and grateful and vulnerable and angry and bitchy and shady and hilarious and, above all, human.

Tens across the board.

A Legendary Legacy