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Review: An enlightening look at transgender representation in Hollywood, then and now

Sandra Caldwell in the documentary "Disclosure."
Sandra Caldwell in the documentary “Disclosure.”
(Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix)

For the transgender community, it’s been a notable, visible and, hopefully, pivotal Pride month, one that saw the Supreme Court’s landmark decision protecting the rights of LGBTQ workers; New York’s massive Black Trans Lives Matter demonstration; and L.A.’s All Black Lives Matter march, which honored the life of Tony McDade, a Black trans man who was shot and killed in May by Tallahassee, Fla., police.

But it hasn’t been entirely positive. Last Friday, the Trump administration announced the reversal of Obama-era healthcare protections for transgender patients. Then there were “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling’s controversial comments suggesting that transgender women should not be considered “real” women.

Thus, it couldn’t be a timelier week to drop the skillfully assembled, highly enlightening and heartfelt documentary “Disclosure,” which takes an engrossing, smartly contextual look at the history of transgender depictions in film and television.

The ambitious movie, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, makes a fine, all-trans companion piece to “The Celluloid Closet,” the excellent 1995 documentary (based on Vito Russo’s 1981 book) that tracked LGBTQ on-screen portrayals beginning with the silent era.

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“Disclosure” director Sam Feder, along with an extraordinary group of transgender interview subjects led by “Orange Is the New Black” actress Laverne Cox (also an executive producer here), presents a largely comprehensive, non-chronological survey of transgender representation — and misrepresentation — in Hollywood culture.

Employing a treasure trove of clips ranging from such films as “Psycho,” Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill” and “The Crying Game,” to seminal documentaries such as 1968’s “The Queen” and 1990’s “Paris Is Burning,” and more recent efforts including TV’s “I Am Cait” and the hit FX series “Pose,” the movie effectively frames these and so many other works’ trans and gender-nonconforming portrayals against the emotional impact, they had — for better and/or worse — on our interviewees at different points in their lives.

This decidedly personal slant makes for an immersive and often profound viewing experience, one that avoids feeling didactic or clinical.

Cox discusses what it was like as a child to sit with her family and watch TV comedian Flip Wilson play the brash, crowd-pleasing Geraldine Jones. Though the character was not trans-identified, she was an early window into how Cox began to think of herself as a trans person. Meanwhile, writer-actress Jen Richards eloquently relates how a friend blithely referenced the (debatably) transgender serial killer “Buffalo Bill” from “The Silence of the Lambs” when Richards came out to her.

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These are but two of many stirring recollections and observations from a strong array of spokesfolks including actresses Alexandra Billings, Sandra Caldwell, Jazzmun, Trace Lysette and Mj Rodriguez; actors Chaz Bono, Elliot Fletcher, Marquise Vilsón and Brian Michael Smith; filmmaker Lilly Wachowski (the “Matrix” franchise); producer Zackary Drucker; professor-author Susan Stryker; journalists Tre’vell Anderson, a former L.A. Times reporter, and Tiq Milan; and many other vital, insightful voices.

Consistent with the on-screen images of other historically marginalized groups, most erstwhile portrayals of transgender or gender variant characters have been offensive, irresponsible, dehumanizing or otherwise misguided. And that’s how so many trans people have been seen — and have seen themselves. (It’s estimated here that 80% of Americans do not know a transgender person and, crucially, form their impressions from media depictions.)

Gene Avery, Stormé DeLarverie, and Dore Orr in a still from the documentary "Disclosure."
(Netflix)

Sex workers, rape and murder victims, tragic figures, psychotic killers and other unhinged villains have made up a preponderance of trans roles, especially in medical shows and on police procedurals and other TV crime dramas. The film asserts that these kinds of one-dimensional portrayals have played a part in the disproportionate violence that occurs against trans people, especially those of color.

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Candis Cayne, the first transgender actress to play a recurring trans character on prime-time TV (in ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money”) wryly notes of her gallery of roles, “I’ve died so many times I’ve lost count.”

In comedies, trans characters and cross-dressers have often served as the butt of jokes, a default for laughs or an emasculating device. Writer-advocate Zeke Smith recalls his horror when, later in life, he realized a favorite childhood movie, “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” featured a scene in which the reveal of a transgender person caused a chain reaction of vomiting. And that Jim Carrey comedy was hardly the only one to employ that odious trope. (Talking to you, “Naked Gun 33 1/3.”)

Still, there have been bright spots including such movies as “Victor/Victoria,” “Ma Vie en Rose” and “Yentl,” which receive kudos here for their more affirmative or embracing messages. Even Bugs Bunny gets a shout-out for his gender-bending act in 1957’s “What’s Opera, Doc.”

Other issues that are deftly explored involve cisgender actors taking trans roles (“Dog Day Afternoon” and “Dallas Buyers Club” are singled out); the shortage of trans male representation on screen; the history of Black male comedians doing drag; the whitewashing of real-life Black characters from the films “Boys Don’t Cry” and 2015’s “Stonewall;” and the concern that the word “disclosure,” with regard to gender identity, presupposes there is something to disclose.

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The movie stresses that, although things have improved for the transgender community in recent years, there’s still much work to be done. A first-rate documentary like “Disclosure” should certainly help the cause.

'Disclosure'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Playing: Available June 19 on Netflix


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