Director Sam Feder’s Disclosure, which world premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is an ambitious, ground-breaking and nuanced examination of over one hundred years of trans representation on screen. Iconic and lesser known scenes from film and television are placed in context by a line-up of trans trailblazers including the iconic Laverne Cox, who is an executive producer on the documentary, singer and actress Alexandra Billings, 9-1-1: Lone Star actor Brian Michael Smith, writer and actress Jen Richards, activist Chaz Bono, historian Susan Stryker, Matrix trilogy filmmaker Lilly Wachowski and Pose star Mj Rodriguez. What makes the film particularly powerful and thought-provoking is the way that many of the contributors share personal stories of the impact a particular trans screen portrayal had on them, and the complex relationship of being grateful for some representation despite its flaws. As Disclosure emphasises, depictions of trans people on screen, in fictional narratives and chat shows alike, not only influence how cis people view trans people in real life—GLAAD’s Director of Transgender Media & Representation, Nick Adams comments that 80% say they don’t know a trans person—but they also affect how trans people view themselves.
One of the most persuasive arguments in the film examines how decades of cis men playing trans women has reflected and fuelled societal ignorance and fear around the idea that trans women are somehow deceptive men in disguise; as well as being used as an offensive emasculating device in comedy. Meanwhile the entertainment industry has continually lavished these performers with acclaim and awards. Jared Leto won an Oscar for portraying Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, opposite the redeemed straight cis hero, as did William Hurt for his role in Kiss of the Spider Woman, while Eddie Redmayne was Oscar nominated for The Danish Girl, as Chris Sarandon had been before him for Dog Day Afternoon. There’s also an exploration of the victimisation of trans characters and the traumatic experience many trans people had watching Boys Don’t Cry, which won an Oscar for Hilary Swank’s portrayal of Brandon Teena, and excluded any mention of Brandon’s Black friend Philip DeVine who was murdered alongside him.
Aside from Brandon Teena, much of the discussion focuses on the portrayal of trans women, acknowledging the dearth of trans male representation both on and off screen. There is detailed scrutiny though of the The L Word‘s handling of Max Sweeney, played by non-binary actor Daniela Sea. We’re reminded just how hostile the characters on the show were towards Max as he was transitioning, viewing his decision as treacherous and anti-feminist. This section of Disclosure examines the kind of arguments currently being championed by a certain author on Twitter. She Who Shall Not Be Named. Disclosure doesn’t address several acclaimed cis actresses playing trans women such as Olympia Dukakis in Tales of the City or Felicity Huffman in Transamerica who received an Oscar nomination for the role. Though we do see portrayals such as Famke Janssen as Ava in Nip/Tuck discussed.
Jen Richards, who played the young Anna Madrigal in last year’s return to Barbury Lane, is one of Discloure’s most compelling contributors. She makes the point that with so little overall trans representation, negative portrayals that read as trans from Psycho to Silence of the Lambs, and the trope of cis repulsion from The Crying Game to Ace Ventura Pet Detective, have a disproportionately influential affect on how trans people are viewed and view themselves. Throughout most of the history of mainstream screen entertainment, LGBTQ+ characters have appeared in series and films intended for a non-LGBTQ+ audience, so we’re unlikely to see ourselves reflected back to us accurately, but rather through a cis straight lens. This has often led to damaging images, but Disclosure doesn’t directly blame specific filmmakers or actors for negative trans portrayals, though Laverne Cox does joking ask ‘What’s up Alfred?’ as the film explores the frequent connection in his work between criminality and what he likely would have seen as “gender transgression”.
Disclosure doesn’t deny that there’s some reason to celebrate the current wealth of trans representation on screen, marvelled at by veteran trans actress Sandra Caldwell, who had worked ‘stealth’ in the industry for decades before discussing her trans identity openly for the first time at an audition in 2017 for an Off-Broadway production. In recent years we’ve seen Daniela Vega take to the stage at the Academy Awards as a presenter and the movie she starred in, A Fantastic Woman, winning best foreign language film, as well as the arrival of Ryan Murphy’s Pose (exemplifying a creative’s ability to evolve when it comes to trans portrayals, following Nip/Tuck). This significant increase in trans visibility though is happening at the same time that trans people are being demonised by politicians, their rights are being eroded, and there are people within the queer community who want to exclude trans folks, while trans people, particularly trans women of colour, are being disproportionally being murdered in our country. It’s a dichotomy that spurred Feder on to make the film and is addressed in Disclosure by looking back to see how we got to this moment.
The documentary is continually surprising, with everything up for discussion including the very word of the title itself, as Jen Richards questions the idea of having to ‘disclose’ being trans and the dynamics of that situation which on screen has, horrifically, often led to violence or vomiting. Academic at times, but always accessible, Disclosure doesn’t present itself as the definitive guide to trans lives on screen, but rather opens the topic up for conversation, presenting a wealth of talking points and giving viewers the tools to analyse the trans representations they encounter after seeing the film. Brilliantly edited and orchestrated, Disclosure never loses focus despite the huge number of clips and large team of on screen contributors. And in using all trans contributors the result is a film that’s a powerful, timely, and ultimately hopeful piece of trans screen representation in itself.
By James Kleinmann
Disclosure launches globally on Netflix Friday June 19th 2020.