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Best Transgender Movies That Raise Up Underseen Queer Cinema

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With Pride Month underway, now’s as good as a time as any to explore the world of queer cinema, especially films regarding trans experiences. Unfortunately, many films about trans people, even in the independent film sector, tend to be outright dehumanizing. The history of trans representation in cinema is a dire one full of harmful stereotypes that reduce trans individuals to caricatures as well as cis-gendered actors portraying trans characters. These films are a funhouse mirror version of the realities of trans experiences, something trying to evoke reality but are instead warped.

But that doesn’t mean the medium of film is devoid of titles that offer thoughtful examinations of trans characters. In recent years, a handful of trailblazing movies have redefined the kind of films trans characters can occupy. Rather than reduce trans individuals to just being supporting players, these films put trans perspectives front and center in genres ranging from Westerns to dark comedies to documentaries. The versatility of these films reflects the inherent complexity of being trans. There is no one way to be a trans person. Why should there be a singular approach to being a movie about trans individuals?

To help raise awareness for films whose very existence conveys this important message, let’s look at five underappreciated pieces of trans cinema, all of which star trans performers and some of which are also helmed by trans artists. These are the kind of movies that aren’t just essential viewing for Pride Month, but for any time you’re in the mood for superb filmmaking.

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Tangerine

Mya Taylor in Tangerine

Image via Magnolia Pictures

One of the first feature-length narrative movies shot on an iPhone, Tangerine broke down the barriers of who had access to filmmaking tools. You no longer needed the most pristine camera on the market to create a theatrical feature, just the phone in your pocket. This technological feat was complimented by the similarly unique trait of being the rare American feature to be headlined by two trans women of color.

Following the exploits of two characters played by Kitana Kiki-Rodriguez and Mya Taylor throughout Christmas Eve in Los Angeles, Tangerine is a film as vividly realized as the personalities of its protagonists. The stripped-down camerawork complements the grounded nature of the story, and writer/director Sean Baker (who penned the screenplay with Chris Bergoch) makes sure that even the most fleetingly seen character leaves an impact, let alone Taylor and Kiki-Rodriguez’s leading performances. Baker’s gift for capturing recognizably realistic melancholy is also put to great use here. This is especially apparent in an unforgettably haunting climactic montage where the principal characters are all framed in a despondent manner against cheerful Yuletide backdrops that seem to be mocking them.

Tangerine is currently streaming on Kanopy and Magnolia Selects.

Lingua Franca

Isabel Sandoval in Lingua Franca

Image via ARRAY Releasing

For her third directorial feature film, Lingua Franca, Isabel Sandoval employed several visual traits that echoed great filmmakers of the past. There are moments in Lingua Franca that channel everyone from Chantal Akerman to Martin Scorsese to Hiroshi Teshigahara. What’s truly impressive about this movie, though, is how Sandoval merges those influences to create a film that’s singularly her’s; a kind of distinctive modern cinema that has no problem standing on its own. Her story chronicles an undocumented medical worker named Olivia (played by Sandoval) and her quiet desire to be seen as a person by those around her, a thematic motif echoed in other key supporting characters throughout the movie.

Sandoval doesn’t shy away from getting into the nitty-gritty of struggles Olivia faces on a day-to-day basis, particularly the looming presence of ICE. But Sandoval refuses to define this character just by her misery, an approach taken by so many other mainstream movies dealing with trans individuals. Quiet scenes like an intimate chat between Olivia and her childhood best friend radiate with a cozy quality that you wouldn’t find in, say, Dallas Buyers Club. The atmosphere of this exchange, and other tones throughout the film, are enhanced through Sandoval’s camerawork.

Lingua Franca is now streaming on Netflix.

Disclosure

Laverne Cox in Disclosure

Image via Netflix

The 2020 documentary Disclosure explores the history of trans representation in pop culture as well as the toxic potholes that films and television can often step into when dealing with trans individuals. In exploring this subject matter, director Sam Feder builds the production around a singular technique: Interviews exclusively with trans artists. There are no cis-gendered speakers here opining on the dangers of trans stereotypes. Instead, trans perspectives get the kind of spotlight they rarely receive elsewhere to speak on how pop culture can be both dangerous and uplifting for the trans community.

Going down this route results in a richly compelling documentary that’s quite comprehensive in the people it interviews. Disclosure makes time to talk to everyone from Laverne Cox to Michael A. Cohen to Jazzmun Nichala Crayton in exploring their own unique experiences in navigating show business as a trans artist. The thoughtfulness in Disclosure’s interview subjects is reflected throughout the movie, including an important closing narration emphasizing the importance of real-world activism alongside pop culture representation. That’s the kind of insightfulness you’d only get through centering trans authority in a documentary like Disclosure, whose very existence is a rebuke towards how Hollywood has often treated trans people.

Disclosure is now streaming on Netflix.

Drunktown’s Finest

Carmen Moore in Drunktown's Finest

Image via Film1 Sundance Channel

Often, trans characters in movies are plagued and even solely defined by extreme versions of tragedy, particularly life-threatening diseases. Such a harmful stereotype is countered in Drunktown’s Finest, which chronicles a more emotionally complicated canvas of day-to-day trans existence. The film follows the lives of three Navajo individuals living on a reservation, with one of those lead characters being Felixia (Carmen Moore). She’s a woman trying to find work as a modeling gig while being endlessly concerned over her job opportunities being jeopardized if she’s outed as trans.

The experiences of trans artists like Moore and writer/director Sydney Freeland lend real authenticity rather than derivative melodrama to Felixia’s plight. Drunktown’s Finest depiction of how a conversation between Felixia and an old high school classmate can feel like Felixia has to justify her very existence is especially potent in its realism. Freeland’s writing also provides welcome subversions of harmful norms of depictions of trans people in cinema, such as giving Felixica a supportive home life. She doesn’t have to conceal herself around her grandparents; they’re the ones who encourage her to pursue any career path she wants.

There’s also the scene where another Drunktown’s Finest protagonist, Luther (Jeremiah Bitsui), has a romantic encounter with Felixia but panics upon discovering she’s trans. Transphobic behavior like this was portrayed as heroic or comical when characters like Ace Ventura did it in previous films; here, it’s explicitly framed as malicious. Freeland is rewriting the cinematic language used in depicting trans individuals all while maintaining a consistent tone grounded in discernible reality. Throughout Drunktown’s Finest, Freeland keeps finding creative ways to eschew traditional narrative connections, all the while capturing her stories with an empathetic lens and a roster of memorable performances.

Drunktown’s Finest is now available to rent or purchase from digital retailers.

Cowboys

The cast of Cowboys

Image via Samuel Goldwyn Films

Traditional tenets of Southern culture can reinforce a classic, even suffocating form of masculinity. But in Cowboys, writer/director Anna Kerrigan ingeniously demonstrates how all those cowboy hats, spurs, and camo shirts can actually be the perfect way for a young trans man, Joe (Sasha Knight) to express his gender identity openly. With this concept, Kerrigan begins to take the outline of a classical Western, a genre that is largely seen as reinforcing traditional gender roles, and uses it as a haven for trans self-expression.

This genre is used for a story about Troy (Steve Zahn) taking his son, Joe, on an impromptu trip to Canada to escape Joe’s unaccepting mother, Sally (Jillian Bell). Making a clean escape from society sounds like a dream scenario in theory, but the ensuing complexities of going on the run are thoughtfully realized throughout the story, all while Kerrigan creates a touching father/trans son union that’s so rarely been seen in film before.

Kerrigan also finds creative ways of generating conflict in this type of connection. There is never any doubt in Troy’s mind what gender his son is; that’s not where problems emerge. His own separate mental health issues are where well-realized issues begin to creep into his and Joe’s escape. Best of all, the story always centers on Joe’s perspective, a lens through which this story garners extra emotional potency. Toss in all-around great performances from the cast (Zahn and Bell have never been better) and Cowboys solidifies itself as an incredibly thoughtful take on both trans perspectives and the Western genre.

Cowboys is now available to rent or purchase through digital retailers.

KEEP READING: Nicole Maines on ‘Supergirl’ and Playing TV’s First Transgender Superhero, Dreamer


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