entertainment

7 epic films featuring trans stars or directors you can't miss

From Disclosure to Cowboys to A Fantastic Woman - these are the movies to take note of this International Transgender Day of Visibility

2021-03-31

Words: Jamie Tabberer

Disclosure

Trans representation on screen has undergone a staggering - and staggeringly fast - revolution in recent years. In 2021, stars like Jen Richards and Kim Petras are rightfully landing roles on high-profile TV shows, while the trend for cis actors garlanded for playing trans characters has thankfully petered out. Eddie Redmayne scoring an Oscar nod for The Danish Girl, for example, feels like a lifetime ago, but was actually only 2016. (Jared Leto's win for Dallas Buyers Club was two years before that).

Netflix documentary Disclosure is a punctuation mark among the progress, reckoning with the mistakes of eras past and setting out expectations for the future. It also serves as the perfect road map for positive trans representation in TV and film, and some of the movies discussed are mentioned in this list.



Featuring interviews with Laverne Cox, Chaz Bono and many other trans actors, directors and cultural commentators, Disclosure was a labour of love for director Sam Feder, who is trans.

He recently told Attitude: "Access to sport is being threatened. Doctors can refuse care to trans people. Shelters can refuse care to trans people. [Transphobic policy] is just across the board. It’s ridiculous, inhumane, offensive. I think Disclosure is a way to have these conversations in a way that is not as accusatory as many of us would like to be. Telling people: this is just unspeakable violence towards trans people that's happening.

"When we start to look at the history of representation, at how we've again and again been portrayed as not real, that we don't actually exist, you start to understand how these conversations can even be had. From my point of view, rather than just pulling my hair out, I can just be like, ‘Okay, this is why the world thinks this of us. This is a way we can have this conversation and move past it, finally.'"

2) A Fantastic Woman

Another symbol of change is 2017's A Fantastic Woman, which won the 2018 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar - the first with a transgender lead to do so.

Star Daniela Vega deserved an Oscar herself for her vivid portrayal of Chilean trans woman Marina, whose life is turned upside down when her older lover Orlando dies, prompting hostile inquiries from authorities and his family.

In 2018, Vega described to The Guardian how the film "wants you to question where you stand in society. Are you with Orlando’s family or with Marina?

"Instead of answering questions, the film’s trying to ask questions about everything. What bodies can or can’t we inhabit? Which love stories are valid and which aren’t? Why is it that certain groups oppress other groups because they’re not within what they consider normal boundaries?”

3) Cowboys

A standout at this year's BFI Flare: London LGBTQ Film Festival, we recently called Cowboys (available on digital platforms 7 May) a "near-masterpiece." A modern Western that looks at a family coming to terms with their son's trans identity, the film suggests big things for child star Sasha Knight, who is trans.

On the response to the film, director Anna Kerrigan recently told Attitude: "We’ve received a lot of institutional support from LGBTQIA festivals and organizations like PFLAG, but I have been most moved by personal messages I receive from transgender kids and adults on social media, thanking me for making the film.

"I have a young friend who saw Cowboys then called me to come out to as transgender. We had never talked on a daily basis, and hadn’t seen each other in a while, but the fact that he trusted me and sought me out made me feel like something in Cowboys and Joe’s story had made him feel like I would support and understand him…Well, honestly, it just made me cry.

"You can never make a film that is representative of everyone’s experience, but if it really connects with a few people, makes them feel seen and heard, well that’s all you can really ask for."

4) Cloud Atlas

As per Disclosure, trans representation in entertainment is not just about who's in front of the camera, but who's behind it, too. Step forward sisters Lana and Lilly Wachowski, perhaps the most famous trans directors working today, thanks in part to their 1999 sci-fi classic The Matrix and its sequels. (Lana's returning to codirect the upcoming fourth film, simply called Matrix).

But what of their wider work? They served as writers on 2005's excellent V For Vendetta, for example, before creating seminal Netflix show Sense8. (The less said about campy space opera Jupiter Ascending the better).

The shiniest hidden gem of their filmography, however, is Cloud Atlas, which they codirected with Tom Tykwer; it received tepid reviews and bombed at the box office upon release in 2012.

Almost 10 years later, it's due a reappraisal. Staggering visuals, the Wachowskis' trademark multidimensional storytelling and a starry cast including Tom Hanks, Halle Belly and Ben Whishaw - what's not to love?

5) Tangerine

This fiercely gritty low-budget drama, famously shot on an iPhone, is worlds apart from the pomp and prestige of The Danish Girl, also released in 2015.

While the latter picked up four Oscar nods (Alicia Vikander won Best Supporting Actress), Tangerine was shut out completely, despite campaigns for its openly trans stars Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. 

While the sweet and gentle TDG is now remembered for the wrong reasons, Rodriguez and Taylor's magnificent performances in Tangerine seem only more agenda-setting with time.

In this fast-moving dramedy, an LA-based sex worker and her friend exact revenge on a cheating boyfriend. On the backstreets of Hollywood, of all places, and on Christmas Eve, of all days. (A family-friendly festive flick this ain't.)

6) Promising Young Woman 

Laverne again, who's popped up in a number of memorable movies since skyrocketing to fame in Orange Is the New Black eight (!) years ago. Among them 2015's Grandma and 2016 TV movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again are worth a look.

She returns to the zeitgeist with this year's Oscar-tipped revenge thriller Promising Young Woman, about a mysterious med school dropout named Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) who feigns drunkenness in bars to expose the 'nice guys' who take her home for the monsters they really are.

Laverne plays Gail, Cassandra's friend and boss at the coffee shop they both work for. As Laverne herself told Refinery29: "There's nothing in the script that suggested Gail might be trans. There's nothing in the script that suggested that Gail was Black. So, I think there was something that [director Emerald Lilly Fennell] saw in me that she wanted me to be Gail, which I am so grateful for.

"For me, honestly, when I read the script, I just wanted to be in the film. I just wanted to be a part of this project because I thought it was important. And I wanted to be involved in projects that I think are important, that are having conversations and engaging in storytelling that I think is important."

7) Strong Island

Netflix has a mind-boggling roster of true crime series and docs, but the searingly personal Strong Island stands out for making director Yance Ford the first publicly trans person to earn an Academy Award nod for Best Documentary Feature.

In it, Ford investigates brother William Ford Jr.'s death in 1992, after the unarmed Black man was shot dead by a white mechanic who was never charged.

The film takes a cold, hard look at the facts, but is exalted by its emotionality, as Yance and his family bare their souls and express their palpable grief and love for a man they lost 25 years before.