By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
I was in college when I first saw, and was stunned by, My Own Private Idaho. For days I tried to understand what was so different about it. It wasn’t simply the visuals, which were stunning, or River Phoenix’s heartbreakingly vulnerable performance, I thought. But what was it?
I realized it was the film’s presentation of queer culture as something that just is. Unlike every film I’d seen before involving LGBTQ characters, here their lives were not mediated or seen through straight peer groups or institutions. We saw no tearful coming out speeches, or family members spurning them, before finally coming around. Mike and Scott, the protagonists, were living as gay hustlers, and we watched the story through their eyes.
I’d never seen a trans film like that until viewing this year’s Tangerine. The story of Sin-Dee and Alexandra, two trans woman of color sex workers in Los Angeles, it departs from the long, unpleasant history denigrating, ennobling, or all around other-izing that has defined the depiction of trans women at the movies.
The result is exhilarating. Sin-Dee, Alexandra, and at least a dozen other people they meet during the day Tangerine takes place, are trans women of color played by trans women of color. This makes sense, as the film’s story is set in an LA community known for its preponderance of trans sex workers. That said, at times, my mind would pop out of the story, thinking giddily, “There are four trans women of color on screen right now! In a movie I’m seeing in a theater!” Moments like that felt historic.
The film’s director, Sean Baker, a white cis man, set out to make a film about TWOC sex workers when he realized his neighborhood was home to so many. He met Mya Taylor, who plays Alexandra, and she helped him learn about the women’s lives as crafted the story with co-writer Chris Bergoch. Tangerine follows Sin-Dee, who’s just been released from prison, as she seeks the cis woman she learns her boyfriend and pimp Chester has been sleeping with. Sin-Dee’s played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, an actress whose star power is incandescent.
Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s relationship is codependent—the latter is drawn to crack, the former, despite her protestations, gravitates to drama—and moving. While there are fireworks and set pieces galore, a compassionate pull, which stems from the act of watching people under high stress, and in marginal positions, take risks and display vulnerability in the pursuit of their dreams. This feeling undergirds the movie and gives it its heart.
When I began transitioning, 4 1/2 years ago, desperate for some reflection of my identity, I watched any trans related film I could find. I quickly noticed a dispiriting trend in the stories. As though to appease the gods of cissexism, each narrative included a moment where the trans character was brutalized or humiliated for being who they were. This could mean being beaten by the person closest to them (Transamerica, The Crying Game), bashed by an angry crowd (Kinky Boots, Priscilla), or inducing violent nausea in others (Ace Ventura, anything Seth MacFarlane-related).
Amazingly, Tangerine includes a moment that reverses this dynamic, involving a cab driver, Razmik, who’s a consistent customer of Alexandra, and a new sex worker, Selena, who is unexpectedly cisgender. While the resulting scene is off-color, and arguably problematic (who knew cismisogyny was actually a thing?), seeing centuries of transphobia turned on their head, as they were here, was dizzying.
Moments like that result from placing trans people not only in the center of the story, but within their own community. In such dynamics, transness becomes normative, in a way it’s rarely been onscreen before.
In a radio interview with the CBC, Baker said Taylor gave him two commandments in developing his script: it needed to be real, and it had to be funny. Those directions sound contradictory, but they coalesce in tantalizing ways throughout the story. When Sin-Dee finally apprehends Dinah, the woman Chester had been seeing while the former was locked away, for instance, the ensuing melee plays like something from a Looney Tunes action sequence. Step back, however, and one realizes it’s tantamount to kidnapping and assault. The mix Baker achieves gives the film a crackling momentum, while keeping it grounded in what feel like honestly gritty circumstances.
Not everything clicks in the story. A big sequence toward the end, in which Razmik’s family tracks him down at the Donut Time store where Sin-Dee and Alexandra have gathered to confront Chester, does not achieve the over the top farcical notes Baker appears to have intended. Likewise, Chester’s motives, and his worthiness to be Sin-Dee’s beau feel ambiguous in the end, and not in an artful way.
Those are small complaints about a big achievement, however. Through its music, cinematography, voice and performances, Tangerine conjures a fully rounded world, and one hitherto unfilmed. It’s awesome that it’s a movie about trans women or color, but, more than that, it’s a movie about trans women of color that’s truly awesome. Here’s hoping it’s the first of many.