Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen *****
Including: Laverne Cox, Candis Cayne, Chaz Bono, Lilly Wachowski, Michael D. Cohen, Sandra Caldwell, Jamie Clayton, Brian Michael Smith, Mj Rodriguez, Jen Richards
Director: Sam Feder
In 1995, landmark documentary The Celluloid Closet looked at the way lesbian, gay and bisexual people had been portrayed on screen since the dawn of cinema. It concluded that movies had created, reflected and then compounded stereotypes, subsequently forming the dominant opinions of audiences toward different sexualities for decades. Now, twenty-five years later, Disclosure has arrived directly on Netflix, which looks back on the cinematic cannon to unpick how on-screen depictions of trans people has reflected their real-life experience and vice versa. And I cannot understate how important a movie this really is.
Featuring commentary from some of the biggest trans names in the industry, we hear personal testimony directly from the trans community about how their depiction and visibility has directly impacted their lives. Of course it gives us a linear narrative from the earliest gender non-conforming characters on film right until the present day, but it’s these personal statements that ring the truest, because you see the dots joined for the very first time. It might be that in one film there is a sub-standard depiction of a trans person, but if each and every film featuring trans roles is like that, then how can an audience magically picture a positive image of them? And, just as they say, if a trans person only sees negative stories about trans people on screen, how is that going to help them come to terms with their transness if they have no role models they can look up to?
One sequence that packs a real punch is when they discuss “trans panic” in film, in which the stock response to discovering that a person is trans is vomiting. We are shown the sequence from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective when Jim Carrey realises that he has kissed a trans woman and spends hours vomiting and scrubbing his mouth, before outing her to a large assembly of police officers, who all then vomit and wretch for an extended sequence. It’s a scene I had completely forgotten from watching the film as a child, but a scene that did great damage to young trans people who saw it. Add to that the plethora of other movies and TV shows that went on to show vomiting as the stock response to meeting a trans person and it more than compounded the palpable fear and entrenched prejudice that trans people were – and still are – up against, showing it as normal and even funny.
Movies like The Crying Game, which saw a beautiful performance about a trans woman, featured that trans panic reaction, using the character’s gender as a shock tactic in its marketing and we see some incredibly uncomfortable rhetoric around its release and reception at the Academy Awards. The contributors also discuss films like The Danish Girl and Dallas Buyers Club, in which cisgender heterosexual actors achieved much acclaim for playing trans roles and the damage it caused when those actors reasserted their masculinity afterwards.
Of course it’s not all doom and gloom, with discussions around positive portrayals of trans characters by trans performers, especially Laverne Cox in Orange Is The New Black and Candis Cayne in Dirty Sexy Money. Similarly, Sense8 and Pose are trumpeted as wonderful examples of work about trans people, for trans people, by trans people. Issues about Jeffrey Tambor aside and the say the same about Transparent too. But earlier examples of trans people on the small screen were problematic even not so long ago, which they discuss in detail about The L Word and Nip/Tuck.
Laverne Cox is a real stand-out in this film for the way she can vocalise her plain logic about the treatment of trans people. In a really illuminating sequence, we see Laverne reinforce with Katie Couric the way to speak about trans people following an embarrassing interview with Drag Race star Carmen Carrera. We see, resulting from that, a change in Couric in the say she speaks about trans issues and the documentary spends time illuminating the growth in discourse with not just Couric, but Oprah and other TV shows too. These encouraging examples of improvement step away from “cancel culture” and show rationality and reasonability, instead of simple condemnation for people’s miseducation. After all, this film is all about that miseducation and understanding why there are so many misconceptions about the trans community.
Though this is a tremendously moving film overall, the sequence that will really have you reaching for the tissues is when actress Jen Richards talks about her reaction to a scene from I Am Cait, the reality series that followed Caitlyn Jenner and her friends following her transition. At a parents’ support group for trans children, a father speaks about how proud he is of his trans child. Not just in a token way, but fizzing with joy and happiness that he has been lucky enough to be given such a blessing. Richards says that it wasn’t until she saw this moment that she looked back on her own life and realised how many compromises she had been forced to make, with people who gave sub-standard support and dished out second-rate “tolerance” instead of love. She realise that this treatment had left her feeling less of a person, instead of feeling celebrated in the way this father did, which she didn’t even know was possible. And this was a turning point for her. A moment on a reality show, created by the Kardashians. Which just underlines in big thick marker-pen just how much difference positive representation can make, even on a show as low-brow as that.
This is a film that has done its research and has carefully plotted cause and effect, securing input from the most eminent voices on the topic in the industry. It is the complete compendium of how we got to where we are today and it’s fascinating to see cinema through this lens. This is, undoubtedly, the LGBT+ documentary of the year.
OUT NOW ON NETFLIX.