SUNDANCE 2020 FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen traces the history of trans actors throughout the history of entertainment, mainly film and television. The documentary explores the portrayal of the trans community and how that has shaped a less-than-accurate depiction of a marginalized and misunderstood group of fiercely talented individuals. Sam Feder mixes recent interviews and archival footage going as far back as the silent era. He shapes a funny, inviting, and above all, honest documentary that praises the entertainment community for its progress while urging that there is a lot more work to do for equality’s sake.
“We have a sense of humor,” one trans actor explains, “But we kn0w when you are laughing with us and when you are laughing at us.” This statement sets the tone for one segment in which we see the good and the bad of trans representation in TV and Film. The knowing performance by Chablis Deveau in Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and the more embarrassing moments like Sean Young’s painfully unfunny reveal scene as the transgender Lt. Lois Einhorn in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. “I used to love Ace Ventura when I was a kid.” One trans male actor explains. “But now I watch it, and I get to those scenes, and, why is the reaction to throw up?”
Another touchstone in entertainment happens to be Silence of the Lambs. One trans female actor explains that when she first came out to a very dear friend as trans, her friend very sincerely asked, “You mean like Buffalo Bill?” While Lambs makes it a point to clarify that transgender people are not murderers, it does dismiss them as passive and non-confrontational. “I’m not passive!” One trans female actor exclaims. That is not to mention the slew of CIS (Comfortable in Skin) Male actors who have been nominated or have won Oscars for portraying trans females.
“…explores the portrayal of the trans community and how that has shaped a less-than-accurate depiction…”
Among the many trans celebrities interviewed for the documentary is Lavern Cox, the breakout star of Orange is the New Black. “When I first took the role, I was conflicted,” explains Cox. “This was a powerful woman. In fact, in African-American Culture there is no one more powerful than the hair-stylist. But yet, she’s in prison.” Despite misgivings, Cox went on to bust through barriers and continue to open eyes to the trans community.
The doc chooses to enlighten rather than to teach, a subtle but key difference. Sam Feder’s light but comprehensive approach utilizes references to the characters we have grown up watching through the years to remind us that trans actors exist, have existed, and continue to be significant contributors to the entertainment that we so fondly turn to for escape.
Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen not only leaves us with the hope that things will improve, but it also shows us how much better the industry is when everyone is included, represented, and respected. Here’s to a brighter, more diverse future for all trans actors.
Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.