Saturday, July 4, 2020

Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen is as Richly Human as it is Emotionally Affecting

While cis-gendered actors are frequently being praised and even nominated for Oscars for playing trans characters, actual trans performers tend to languish in terms of the kind of opportunities they receive. They can't even get the chance to portray the rare specifically trans characters in films, let alone ones that aren't just defined by being trans. That fact is one of many entertainment-industry double standards explored throughout the documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen. The premise for this one is simple as director Sam Feder interviews an assortment of trans celebrities and media figures on a variety of topics.

These topics include discussions of how cinema has skewed towards negative portrayals of trans people as early as the 1910s. Another talking point is how trans characters are usually restricted to gritty crime thrillers where they're either deceased victims or meant to represent terrifying villains. Yet another recurring issue is how often the idea of being in love with a trans person is played for laughs while personal anecdotes are shared with how these media portrayals play into larger systemic issues. In a nutshell, these default toxic approaches to trans representation in cinema help normalize the widespread "othering" of trans people around the world.

As somebody who has spent time researching, writing and discussing media portrayals of members of the LGBTQIA+ community, a number of the issues raised by Disclosure were familiar to me. However, reading about negative tropes related to trans representation in a textbook is one thing. Hearing performers like Laverne Cox, Jamie Clayton and Susan Stryker explore these ideas with their own specific personal experiences is another thing entirely Disclosure restricting itself to just these interview segments (as well as accompanying visual aids like footage from movies and TV shows) allows the personal nature of the production to flourish. Here, voices usually silenced in the discourse get to be the only ones speaking. That lends freshness to concepts that were familiar to me personally.

Meanwhile, more aspects of Disclorsue's explorations of trans representation proved to be new to me than familiar. Among such revelations is the fact that D.W. Griffith incorporated a negative trans stereotype into one of his earliest works. What a fascinating detail, one made all the more interesting given that it's followed up by a great summarization of Griffith's awfulness by Lilly Wachowski. Meanwhile, personal accounts of how the media has treated trans performers on an individual level prove gut-wrenching to listen to. Candis Cayne's anecdote about being so excited for her appearance on Dirty Sexy Money only to discover, as the show was airing, that her voice had been digitally lowered, that just breaks your heart.

It's also good that Disclosure wraps up its runtime by making sure to emphasize that pop culture representation alone cannot solve the problems facing the trans community. Closing narration emphasizes how increased opportunities for trans performers in film and television must go hand-in-hand with political movements to expand civil rights for trans individuals. Art has an important role to play in the world but Disclosure smartly recognizes that it isn't the only role that needs to be played. Like the engrossing personal stories from the various interview subjects, this closing aspect of Disclosure exquisitely ties this pop culture-fixated documentary into the real world.

Best of all about Disclosure is a simple but no less important pleasure: this documentary just touched me. Sometimes that was out of sorrow, sometimes it was over joy seeing performers like Laverne Cox and MJ Rodriguez achieve unprecedented notoriety in Hollywood. Disclosure constantly had me feeling something and that speaks highly to the films' overall quality. Disclosure's structure and format are familiar in concept, no denying that. But that surface-level familiarity is a trojan horse used to smuggle in captivating perspectives, analysis, and stories not usually seen in mainstream documentary fare. Needless to say, Disclosure is a richly human affair that's very much worth seeing. Let's make this the most watched movie on Netflix for a day rather than that 365 Days trash.

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