Disclosure - if you only watch one documentary this year, let it be this one.
4.5 out of 5
Disclosure arrived on Netflix on 19 June without much fanfare. Indeed, for me, it did not even show up under new releases. I had to go hunting for it. I see now,a few days later, having received some critical press, the Netflix PR juggernaut is now rolling.
In the interests of, and following the theme of this documentary film, most of you will know I am a woman with a trans history. So I bring a huge bias and a depth of emotion to this film that most people may not have and that's ok. I thought I knew my history but I did not. I thought I was educated, I was not. If you only watch one documentary this year, please, let it be this one. As you read this review, as you watch the documentary, I am assuming good intentions and a degree of willingness to understand. I am not trying to change hearts and minds with this review so if you want to stop reading now, that's ok too.
Director Sam Feder has crafted a sensitive and yet hard-hitting exploration of the history of transgender and gender non-conforming people in Hollywood. He traces the depiction of those characters and the effect they have had on our culture, specifically film and television. He retraces the ways that gender-nonconforming characters have been depicted on-screen since at least D.W. Griffith’s 1914 silent “Judith of Bethulia.” Using the popular "talking heads" trope, Feder has assembled a diverse range of voices: from actors to writers, critics and directors, from diverse backgrounds and experiences - too many to list here.
This documentary is not a lecture, it's an exploration of cinema and television. On one level it's a fascinating look at the history of the media. It looks at the films you will all know: The Danish Girl, Psycho, Mrs Doubtfire, Yentl, Boys Don't Cry, The Crying Game and more. The tele-visual references may not be as recognisable for audiences outside the United States but we had them here too: the Danny LaRues and Benny Hills of the TV world. On the other hand, it explores how trans-identities have been portrayed over the years on screen. Most importantly, it sets out how those portrayals have come to represent the cultural and societal idea of what it means to be trans and how insidious those ideas are. It explores the range of responses too. From laughing at a trans person on a subway (Laverne Cox's experience) to the vomiting reaction of The Crying Game. Such reactions go unquestioned and become the norm. That's the problem.
“The ways in which trans people have been represented on-screen have suggested that we’re not real, have suggested that we’re mentally ill, that we don’t exist” explains Laverne Cox, who is also a producer on the film. She talks about her experience of seeing someone on TV cross-dressing for a laugh and the effect it had on her. She makes the case that things aren’t much better when cis male actors Jared Leto or Eddie Redmayne portray trans characters for their more “respectable” roles in “The Dallas Buyers Club” or “The Danish Girl” — especially when those same actors appear on the Oscars looking their most masculine, or in a beautiful gown, the way Hilary Swank did for her “Boys Don’t Cry” win. When they do that, it reinforces the perception that trans identity is a kind of performance, like Robin Williams slipping in and out of his “Mrs. Doubtfire” getup, rather than a lifelong commitment to embracing one’s true identity. There are countless troubling examples of trans characters being portrayed as evil and duplicitous or sad and pathetic, far more than the average viewer, or indeed cinephile realises.
The documentary also explores day-time talk shows from the "serious" Oprah to Jerry Springer and the unacceptable questions that trans people are asked, about surgery, about how they "hid their genitals". With every trip to the celluloid or video vaults, the hard-won dignity and grace of the contributors is brought into sharper and sharper relief.
It's not all bad news and the documentary does acknowledge the work done by shows such as I am Cait, Transparent and Pose. There is one scene shown where a parent of a trans child talks about accepting their child as who they are and the camera cuts back to Jen Richards whose own family were not as accepting. She gets animated and angry and it was the moment for me that highlighted the emotional core of the documentary - the effect Hollywood has on real lives, on human beings. It was powerful and I cried.
Another touchstone in entertainment happens to be "Silence of the Lambs". One trans female actor explains that when she first came out to a very dear friend as trans, her friend very sincerely asked, “You mean like Buffalo Bill?” For those of you who may not remember, Buffalo Bill, kidnapped girls and skinned them to make a suit of their skin so he could be a girl. Horrific on so many levels and yet accepted without question.
The documentary does a good job of situating each example in a wider context, and reminding viewers why depictions in media matter. “For decades, Hollywood has taught people how to react to trans people, and that is with fear,” explains GLAAD’s Nick Adams. In other words: Each time trans-ness is used as a murderer’s motive, a reason to recoil in disgust, or cause to laugh, the audience is given permission to react in the same way. Since most do not personally know a trans person, for many people media is their only experience. On hospital shows and procedural dramas, trans women either end up dead, raped, and even sometimes get cancer from their hormone treatments. “I’ve died so many times I’ve lost count,” says Candis Cayne, who made history in 2007 as the first recurring trans character on prime time television, in Dirty Sexy Money.
But it's not all bad. There are some positive representations such as in Orange Is The New Black or, my personal favourite; Bugs Bunny’s turn as Brunhilda in the 1957 animated short What’s Opera, Doc?,one of Chuck Jones' greatest animations.
The documentary chooses to enlighten rather than to teach, a subtle but key difference. Sam Feder’s light but comprehensive approach utilizes references to the characters some of us have grown up watching through the years to remind us that trans actors exist, have existed, and continue to be significant contributors to the entertainment that we so fondly turn to for escape. Disclosure not only leaves us with the hope that things will improve, but it also shows us how much better the industry is when everyone is included, represented, and respected.