Emmy-winner Michael Barnett’s compelling feature documentary about transgender teen athletes Changing the Game, which launches on Hulu on Tuesday June 1st 2021, had its world premiere at Tribeca back in 2019, going on to be a hit at LGBTQ+ festivals across the US and internationally, winning audience awards at both Frameline and Outfest.
The film follows three high schoolers as they navigate discriminatory legislation and negative attitudes to excel in their chosen fields of sport. Their inspiring stories of courage and resilience in three US States—New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Texas—are effectively interwoven throughout, highlighting the recurring themes in their journeys which unite their experiences; with crisp, unhurried, yet often dynamic editing by Michael Mahaffie and Amanda Griffin, balancing the three narrative strands.
Policies regarding trans students vary from state to state and the gender segregated world of sport brings into sharp focus how far attitudes, and regulations have evolved in some places, and how far there is to go in others. As we get to know the film’s subjects intimately, Changing the Game shows the profound impact these rulings can have on an individual’s life.
Firstly we meet Texan double state champion wrestler Mack Beggs, who has been forced to participate in female events while at high school. Mack who has a lot of media attention on him, adding further to the pressure of competing, says being forced to wrestle against girls means that despite his wins, he feels like he’s “also losing at the same time”. Speaking about himself and the absurdity of the situation which he finds himself in, Mack says, “I train as hard as a man. I fight as hard as a man. I am a man, and I’m the state champ of female high school wrestling.”
Adopted by his conservative grandparents, who might at first glance appear unlikely trans rights spokespeople, they are nevertheless highly supportive of Mack. Grandmother Nancy, a Dallas deputy police sherif, is a self-described “hardcore Republican” but she says that she doesn’t “mind stepping on some toes when it comes to transgender kids”. “Southern Baptist to the core”, she confides that “it took a tremendous amount of soul-searching and Bible study to come to terms with” having a trans grandson. Barnett clearly earned the trust not only of the his teen subjects but also of their families, resulting in open and frank interviews often in their own homes with sensitive, unobtrusive, and intimate shots by director of photography Turner Jumonville, with additional cinematography by Barnett and Chris Westlund.
With the film detailing some heartbreaking statistics such as “over 40% of transgender youth” either attempt or commit suicide, there’s a deeply moving scene where Mack’s grandmother says that she thinks without her understanding and acceptance Mack wouldn’t be alive today. His wrestling coach is similarly supportive of him, admitting that he “didn’t know what trans was” until he met Mack, but says “he would never turn his back on an athlete.”
Meanwhile in New Hampshire we meet skier Sarah Rose Huckman, a determined and articulate trans advocate, who we see doing makeup tutorial vlogs and talking inspiringly to her social media following, hoping to use her story to help others. “Saying that I’m trans and that I’m strong and that you can be strong too, allows other people who are trans or part of the LGBTQ community to feel validated and accepted”, she says. Sarah Rose also has a conservative, but extremely supportive family, with her parents backing her successful campaign to amend the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association (NHIAA) regulations, which resulted in a statewide change enabling her to compete in skiing events. At one point Sarah Rose admits to holding herself back to some extent while competing in order to preemptively avoid complaints that she has an unfair advantage.
In Connecticut, where trans high school students are able to participate in sports based on who they are, we meet track star Andraya Yearwood. Her coach is matter of fact about the situation, saying: “She’s out there competing with all the other girls and that’s the way it should be”, but there is vocal disagreement from some parents to Andraya taking part in track events. One impassioned woman says inscrutably, seemingly within earshot of Andrya, that her competing is an affront to “gender equality”. Andraya is not the only trans athlete in her school, with her visibility encouraging fellow student Terry Miller to join her on the track. There are some touching scenes of the peers training and relaxing together, praising one another’s fortitude.
As with Mack and Sarah Rose, Andraya has the support of her family, with Andraya’s mother talking movingly about guarding her child physically and emotionally. We’re told a tragic and sobering statistic that “an African American transgender female student is five times more likely to be murdered than her peers”.
Andraya is not alone in hearing negative voices around her. At one point we see Mack win a wrestling match only to be greeted by loud boos and angry calls from parents in the crowd. The television news show pundits discussing him are not merely in disagreement with Mack competing with female wrestlers, but spewing hatred towards the teenager, we even hear one commentator make a sick joke about suicide. No wonder Mack says “I’ve been bullied by more adults than kids” as he scrolls through some appalling online comments about him. We also see the film’s subjects observe the actions being taken against LGBTQ+ equality at the highest level under Trump as the rollbacks of protections are reported on TV.
Throughout the film, Barnett takes his time to fully explore Mack, Sarah Rose, and Andraya’s stories, crucially allowing the teens to speak for themselves and for us as an audience to get to know them intimately as individuals, rather than as brief sketches or talking heads. Changing the Game succeeds in being an important, impactful, and emotionally potent documentary that balances the harsh realities of being trans in the USA today with a strong sense of optimism and a celebration of the bravery of its subjects. These are powerful individual stories that transcend religion and politics. The film is enhanced by a stunning score by Tyler Strickland, which is never manipulative or overused, bringing a warmth and hopefulness to film, while there’s a rousing end credits track, Chasing Dreams, co-written and produced by Stickland performed by Gozé, featuring Old Man Saxon and Shea Diamond.
Changing the Game is a film that has only gained in urgency since it was made, and deserves and needs to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. With new bills currently being introduced, the film keeps its end credit wording general: “The majority of states in the US continue to write legislation to exclude transgender youth from participating in sports as who they are.”
With Biden now in the White House, he spoke directly to trans youth in his first address to a joint session of Congress on April 28th, saying: “To all transgender Americans watching at home, especially young people who are so brave, I want you to know your President has your back.” Although his remarks were of course historic and welcome, and in stark contrast to the rhetoric and actions of his predecessor, this remains a disturbing and severely concerning time for trans youth and their loved ones. According to the ACLU, during the first five months of this year alone over 30 states introduced laws which ban trans students from participating in school sports as part of larger legislative attacks. By April 15th of 2021, the ACLU reported that over 100 bills had been introduced across the country targeting trans rights.
Wisely Barnett has chosen to focus on these captivating human stories, resulting in a film that remains relevant and vital despite the rapidly changing legislative landscape.
By James Kleinmann
Changing the Game premieres on Hulu on Tuesday June 1st 2021.
Read The Queer Review’s exclusive interview with Mack Beggs.