Towards the beginning of Sam Feder’s new documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen Susan Stryker is talking about early filmmaking pioneer D.W. Griffith. Stryker explains that Griffith’s 1914 film Judith of Bethulia, known for inventing the dynamic montage, prominently features a gender nonconforming person. We see this person — flamboyant, androgynous — navigating a silent film aesthetic we associate with more normative images. Stryker’s eyes gleam with the confirmation that trans people have always existed and have always existed on screen. Our lives are intrinsic to the art form of cinema.
Cut to Yance Ford none too impressed. “As the Missy Elliot song would say, we just need to back it up for a minute,” he interjects. Ford brings up Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation — a film that inspired the resurgence of the KKK — before returning to the earlier work. “Not only is Griffith incredibly racist, but he understands that you can turn gender nonconforming people into the joke of your story.”
This piece of history — this gender nonconforming person captured on celluloid over a hundred years ago — is suddenly reframed. Twice. Griffith cannot be praised without context. And is the inclusion of this stereotypical character even worthy of praise?
Trans film history — like all film histories — is one filled with contradictions, and Disclosure succeeds by making these contradictions its subject. The movie doesn’t split representation into simple categories of good and bad, nor does it discuss intersections of race, gender, and class as mere asterisks. They are the entire point.
The film remains committed to the discomfort, pain, and disagreements that accompany an accurate look at our cinema. There is no attempt to sanitize or create a simplistic narrative of progress. “There are lots of ugly things about our history that feel like an assault,” Ford says. “But I think we have to know them. I think we have to learn them.”
Disclosure features a remarkable list of interview subjects that includes executive producer Laverne Cox, as well as Brian Michael Smith, Jen Richards, Lilly Wachowski, Tiq Milan, Rain Valdez, Ser Anzoategui, Candis Cayne, Angelica Ross, and many more. And almost every movie and TV show discussed for its negative and stereotypical portrayal of trans people is met with one of the people speaking its praises.
Marquise Vilsón found Jerry Springer empowering, because it showed that there were people like him. Zackary Drucker didn’t take issue with The Crying Game until years later, because simply seeing a woman with a penis changed her life. There are so many stories like this. One person’s traumatic memory is another’s powerful revelation. The documentary leaves room for all of this. It goes beyond the intellectual and emphasizes the emotional experience of representation.
One of the film’s most powerful moments finds Laverne Cox discussing Ava on Nip/Tuck. She breaks down the scene of Ava’s disclosure beat by beat. Then she takes a deep breath. “So okay, so I need to—” she begins before exhaling again. “Just even talking about this as a trans person, even like— it’s so violent. It feels so— it’s so hard to talk about. I’m like cringing and I want to cry talking about it. I want to cry talking about this narrative, because it’s just horrible.”
There’s a lot of tangible knowledge to glean from this film, but it’s moments like this that emphasize why that knowledge matters. Whether discussing the ways we’re portrayed on screen or any other facet of our lives, trans people are often expected to educate. And that’s what Laverne Cox was doing — breaking down a transphobic moment, a disclosure, objectively and in detail. But this isn’t an objective experience. Watching portrayals like the ones on Nip/Tuck hurt. They’re personal. Revisiting them hurts. Talking about them hurts. I appreciate the opportunity to witness that hurt in other trans people. We’re so often forced to perform strength and understanding.
There is a bitter comfort in moments like this and there is a euphoric comfort in their foil. We may witness the pain of describing the Nip/Tuck moment, but we also see the joy Laverne Cox experiences describing her unexpected connection to Yentl or the inspiration she found in Candis Cayne’s role on Dirty Sex Money. We have a remarkable ability to be seen, to find one another, to find ourselves, even within work intended to mock, exploit, or ignore. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.
And yet, despite all its achievements, the documentary isn’t perfect. The film does not address the lack of representation for disabled trans people. Little of the progress we’ve seen in trans representation has included disabled people — cis queer media is also severely lacking — and it would’ve been meaningful to have disabled trans interview subjects as part of this discussion. The minimal amount of footage to cut to doesn’t excuse this lack of inclusion — it highlights its importance.
The film also doesn’t cover how sexual orientation factors into trans representation. Cis men are still centered in the majority of our love stories — trans lesbians are especially rare — and it would have been nice to see that discussed with the same nuance the film embraced for other topics.
And finally I wish there was more focus on the trans creators who have made work outside of the mainstream Hollywood system. We’re shown Jen Richards on Netflix and HBO, but nothing from Her Story. There’s no mention of Tourmaline whose short films such as Atlantic is a Sea of Bones and Happy Birthday, Marsha! are incredible works of cinema and documents of history. There’s no time spent on Harry Dodge and Silas Howards’ By Hook or By Crook. So much of our best cinema was made by us in short films, webseries, and microbudget films. Highlighting these works would emphasize that improved representation will not come from assimilation — it will come from trans people enjoying a similar creative freedom on a larger scale. We need to be the ones to tell our stories — as actors and as writers and directors.
But there’s comfort in the film’s inability to be comprehensive. Not only is new work being made every year, but old work is constantly being rediscovered. There is too much out there for any one person, any one film. “Every trans person carries within themself a history of trans representation just in terms of what they’ve seen,” Jen Richards says. “What trans people really need though is a sense of a broader history of that representation, so that they can kind of find themselves in it.”
The need for that broader history isn’t something that can be fully achieved. We are all students — none experts. But Disclosure is vital whether it’s the beginning of your education or a supplement along the way. It’s a reminder of what representation can do and what representation can be. It is itself a work of trans cinema. Find yourself within.
Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen premieres this Friday, June 19th, on Netflix.