At this year’s Academy Awards, Focus Features’ film “The Danish Girl”, based on the life of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, was nominated for four awards and Alicia Vikander took home the award for Best Supporting Actress. For decades now Hollywood has been cashing in on the lives of trans and gender non-conforming people. From “Boys Don’t Cry” to “Soldier’s Girl” to shows like “Glee” and “Transparent”, trans narratives are cropping up in a slew of recent releases.
And while it is refreshing to see transgender characters being given a presence on the big and small screen, often times producers/directors/casting agents/studios choose to do use more established cisgender actors to portray these roles. Many in the trans community argue that this whitewashing deprives transgender people of authentic representations and simplifies our stories. Even well intentioned projects aimed at the trans community like 2005’s “Transamerica” hire cisgender actors like Felicity Huffman to play trans characters.
To be fair, there is nothing inherently wrong with cis actors playing trans characters. I would even argue it makes sense at times, especially if we are seeing a character’s backstory prior to transitioning, as in the case of the series “Transparent”, but more often than not, the depictions of trans characters could (and should) be played by trans actors and actresses. Transgender actors deserve the opportunity to portray the representations of our community. That being said, here are a few examples of feature films where trans folks did a phenomenal job in lead roles.
On June 4, 1968 radical feminist Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol. Three years later, Worhol produced “Women in Revolt”, a farcical take on the women’s liberation movement staring Warhol starlets Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, and Holly Woodlawn. The film revolves around a group of women’s liberation group, P.I.G. (Politically Involved Girls), who end up discarding their ideals for fame, sex and drugs. Much of the acting feels improved and the use of trans actress in this case seems to only underscore what I can only assume were Warhol and director Paul Morrissey’s feeling towards feminists (and/or perhaps Solanas in particular), namely that they were man-hating, greedy, catty, lesbian, back-stabbing, attention seekers. While I found much of this film well…revolting, it is notable for it’s casting of trans women in leading roles as well as being one of the last films Warhol himself did shooting on. Available through Netflix (dvd subscription required).
In this French independent film a trans woman, Stéphanie, (Stéphanie Michelini), survives by prostituting herself in Paris. When her mother falls ill she returns home with her two lovers, a former Russian soldier named Mikhail and a brash young male prostitute, Djamel; to look after her dying mother. The film is told through a series of flashbacks, examining Stéphanie’s childhood, and explains how the trio came together. Michelini and gives a solid performance, and the film shows how sometimes the family we long for may be the ones we create for ourselves. Available through Netflix (dvd subscription required).
Trans actress Endry Cardeño stars as Cheila, who comes back from Canada to spend her holidays at the beautiful house she bought for her mother. She announces she will finally be changing her sex to become “a complete woman.” Cheila will have surgery soon; however she needs her family’s support. The once beautiful house is now fully deteriorated and occupied by a chaotic group of brothers, sisters-in-law, nephews and nieces. Cheila will face hard truths, rethinking the relations with herself and her family and realizing the main problems of her family: lack of love, lack of tolerance and meanness. Available through Amazon Prime.
In director Rashaad Ernesto Green’s film “Gun Hill Road”, an ex-con (Esai Morales) returns home after three years in prison to discover his wife (Judy Reyes) estranged and his child beginning to test the waters their gender identity. The film explores the notion of identity that we hold for ourselves and that others often force upon us. Trans actress Harmony Santana does a wonderful job of playing a trans teen struggling to make her father see her for who she truly is. Available through VUDU.com.
Austrailan director Sophie Hyde’s feature, “52 Tuesdays” follows 16 year old Billie, exploration of her burgeoning sexuality, while her mother; played by gender non-conforming newcomer Del-Herbert Jane, begins transitioning towards the masculine identity they have delayed embracing. “Mother” and daughter spend most of the week apart except for a few hours every Tuesdays. To more authentically show the show effects of transitioning, cast and crew actually filmed every Tuesday for a year, with the actors only receiving the script a week at a time. This is the only feature film I found addressing trans-masculine identities using a GNC person. Available through Netflix streaming.
This sweet and funny romantic comedy is a perfect example of how effective casting a trans actor in a film about transgender people can be. Newcomer Michelle Hendley does a spectacular job playing Ricky, a young trans woman living in a small Kentucky town. Ricky is cool, confident and aspires to one day be a famous fashion designer. When she meets an alluring debutant, Francesca, it stirs up new feelings for Ricky, who until then has primarily been attracted to men. The film treats Ricky as a fully formed character, not merely a stereotype. While Ricky’s gender identity is definitely addressed, it isn’t the sole focus of the film. Available through Netflix.
Ester Martin Bergmark’s Something Must Break is the “Sid & Nancy” of Swedish trans films. The film is gritty, gorgeous and raw thanks in large part to talent of trans actress Saga Becker. Becker does a beautiful job playing genderqueer Sebastian/Ellie who struggles with realizing hir identity and the affections (or lack thereof) from the men in hir life. This film is definitely worth checking out if you can find it. You can read my more in depth review of the film (with spoilers) here.
Syndey Freeland’s film centers around 3 Navajo Americans searching for something more than the confines of Dry Lake, NM and the hard realities of life on the reservation. Nizhoni (Morning Star Angeline) was adopted as child by a white couple after her parents died in an automobile accident, and is looking to find information on her biological family. “Sick Boy” (Jeremiah Bitsui) is a rebellious father-to-be who is about to join the army in order to better support his family. Finally, Felixia, played by trans actress Carmen Moore, is a trans woman who lives on the reservation with her grandparents and seeks affection and validation by prostituting herself. The trans sex worker role, while sadly a reality for many trans women, is somewhat cliché; the film manages to give Felixia’s character depth and soul. Her gender identity is again, addressed, but not the sole focus of her personality and Moore gives a terrific performance. Available through VUDU.com.
Last but not least, Tangerine. Not 1 but 2 trans women star in leading roles, in this tale about a working girl who goes on a rampage through Hollywood on Christmas Eve to find the pimp that broke her heart. Both Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor give terrific performances. While the roles of sex workers is sadly a familiar trope for trans characters in movies, these trans women are able to bring a freshness, venerability and depth to them. Bonus factoid: This entire film was shot on an iPhone 5S, and looks incredible. Available through Netflix streaming.