Sundance 2023 Film Review: The Stroll ★★★★★

Directors Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker’s outstanding feature The Stroll, received its world premiere in the US Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, going on the win that section’s Special Jury Award for Clarity of Vision. It tells the collective history of the transgender women of colour who worked “the stroll”—a section of 14th Street in Lower Manhattan’s now hyper-gentrified Meatpacking District—from the 1970s until the early 2000s, and highlights the intrinsic role that trans sex workers have played in the LGBTQ+ rights movement.

Like many of the trans women of colour who we meet in the film, Lovell shares that she ran away to the city from an unaccepting household as a teenager. Fired from her job when she began to transition, homeless and with other employment inaccessible due to societal prejudice, she discovered “the stroll”. As well as providing a means to live, Lovell was also sustained by the sisterhood that she encountered there. “It was amazing to see strong Black trans women”, Lovell recalls. While Tabytha, who was there in the 90s, describes how the “stroll mothers” would take newcomers under their wing and show them the ropes.

Author and activist Ceyenne, who worked “the stroll” from the 1980s until 2005, mentions that she has turned 60; something that has been a heartbreakingly rare milestone for trans women of colour, and the film acknowledges that many of the those who worked on that section of 14th Street are no longer living to tell their own stories. At its heart, this is partly a film about resilience, and all of the trans women Lovell speaks to about their experiences are survivors of “the stroll”, where they were always in “close proximity to violence” as Ceyenne puts it. There was a lack of safety not just in the work itself, but in the women continually having to return to the same place, meaning that their whereabouts was known. We learn that the women of “the stroll” had each other’s backs though, and tried to be there to protect and support each other when they were in immediate danger.

Not only did they have to deal with violent clients, but also endure near constant harassment from the NYPD’s 6th Precinct, who had contempt for the gay men and trans women in the area. Arrests were frequent, often under the state’s 1973 “walking while trans law” (Article 240 of the Offenses Against Public Order act, which was finally repealed in February 2021). On paper it was meant to allow police to arrest those “loitering for the purposes of prostitution”, but in practice it was used to discriminate against trans women. Brenda, who worked the area from 1990 until 2005, says she was arrested 68 times, while sex worker advocate Cecillia describes being arrested while doing everyday things like walking to the store to buy bread.

Many of the women were incarnated at Rikers Island, where it was possible to request to be placed in “alternative lifestyle housing”. “They separated queens and the gay boys from the population” as Lady P (who worked “the stroll” from 1985 until 2005) explains. Serving a longer sentence though, meant being sent to an even harsher prison environment upstate, described in the film as a “microcosmic world of oppression”.

By giving us a widow into the filmmaking process itself, The Stroll also becomes a film about authorship. We see Drucker and Lovell, surveying archive footage together, and Lovell putting her subjects at their ease before interviewing them, treating them with dignity and inviting them into the creation process, further humanizing them and their stories. These aren’t “talking head” interviews, these women are collaborators in the film, sharing their first person histories.

Much of the archive material—including brief excerpts from a 2007 documentary short about LGBTQ+ homeless youth that Lovell appeared in—wasn’t created by trans folks, so there’s an empowering sense of it being reclaimed here. Elements might be familiar from other works, like video of a homeless Slyvia Rivera in her encampment near the West Side Piers—some of which was used by David France in his 2017 feature The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson—but the crucial difference is that this film is being told by trans women, including Lovell who knew Sylvia. While this footage was used to harrowing effect in France’s film, here there’s trans joy on display in the way that Sylvia proudly shows the cameraperson around the living conditions that she’s managed to create for herself, and talks about the communal Christmas and Thanksgiving meals that have been celebrated there.

There are some uncomfortable truths in the film when it comes to the queer liberation movement’s sidelining of trans and gender nonconforming folks in its search for respectability and assimilation. Something we see Sylvia rallying against in her speech in Washinton Square Park in 1973, just four years after trans sex workers of colour were at forefront of the Stonewall riots and subsequent activism. A quarter of a century later, there was a stark contrast in the reaction to the horrific homophobic murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998 (which saw rallies across the country, major media coverage, and a statement by president Clinton), and the comparative lack of response—from outside of the trans community—to the killing of Amanda Milan in 2000. It was a moment that reinvigorated Sylvia’s activism in the last years of her life, which in turn inspired Lovell to be an activist in her storytelling.

The filmmakers treat their audience with the intelligence to connect the dots through to today’s relatively muted response, beyond the trans community, to the continuing epidemic of violence against it, particularly trans women of colour. When the queer community and our allies rallied against the implementation of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, the fact that it also effects trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming folks and their families was often excluded from the narrative. There’s a disparity between the queer community’s response to the relentless wave of Republican anti-trans legislation at state level and, for instance, Justice Thomas’ indication of a threat to marriage equality, which led to federal protections being enshrined in law late last year. On the final day of this year’s Sundance, the host state of Utah banned gender-affirming health care for trans youth, as Drucker highlighted was likely to happen during the film’s Q&A. Trans rights are often framed in the media as being up for debate in a way that those of other members of the LGBTQ+ community are not.

The Stroll offers hope that the activism powered by the trans community is strengthening and growing in the face of this continued violence and these legislative attacks. This was on full display in the midst of a summer of Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd, when over 15,000 people assembled for the Brooklyn Liberation rally and march for Black trans lives. We see footage of an emotional Ceyenne, who founded G.L.I.T.S. (Gays & Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society), speaking on that day about the money that had been donated which would help her to provide housing for trans sex workers and other LGBTQ+ and BIPOC community members.

This is also a captivating story about New York. Throughout the film there’s a movement between images of the Meatpacking District in years gone by—vividly conjuring its “film noir atmosphere”, as one longtime resident, Ivy, puts it—to how it is today. Before Soho House, Diane von Furstenburg, and Sex and the City’s Samantha moved in, and tourists flooded to the High Line, it was a playground for gay men with its sex clubs, and public cruising spots by the trucks and piers. Lovell and Drucker explore some of the causes that led to the drastic change in the character of the neighborhood, and as with the rest of the film, they do so succinctly and with clarity, but without oversimplification. Giuliani’s law and order agenda, the impact of 9/11, and Bloomberg’s focus on property development all played their part. One fascinating section of the film highlights the campaign of a committed group of local residents. Not only did they take to the streets with banners and placards to protest against the women’s presence on “the stroll”, but apparently even went as far as discovering the ownership of their clients’ cars through their license plates and called the men to discourage them from returning.

When an area changes almost beyond recognition, becomes devoid of its former spirit, as has happened with “the stroll” and its surrounding streets, there’s an accompanying erasure of the memories of those who lived, worked, and survived there, and of their history. It’s a point that’s eloquently expressed by Jeremiah Moss, author of Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul, another trans contributor who helps shape the film’s narrative.

As with Drucker’s excellent HBO series The Lady and The Dale, there is some wonderful use of animation—by AWESOME + modest—which doesn’t just illustrate what’s being said, or fill in for an absence of archive material, but beautifully expresses some of deepest thoughts of the women. Particularly memorable are the moments when several women describe a sense of tapping into their super powers to get through threatening situations. There’s also a fantastic, dynamic sequence that combines archive photography with an animated map of Lower Manhattan that quickly immerses us in the time and place.

In one poignant moment, Lovell recalls sleeping in a movie theatre when she was homeless and thinking to herself that that would be “as close to Hollywood” as she would ever get. So it’s particularly satisfying to see her at Sundance alongside Drucker with an award-winning film that will be widely available via HBO/Max from June 21st. With D. Smith’s Kokomo City playing the NEXT section at Sundance, it’s exciting that there are two documentaries at the festival that centre Black trans sex workers, both made by trans women filmmakers. Each have a different focus and take strikingly distinctive approaches narratively and stylistically, but they are nevertheless in dialogue with one another and both are unquestionably must-see films.

As for The Stroll, it goes beyond destigmatization, restoring sex work as part of the history of how trans women have survived, reclaiming the reality of their experiences from the crime show stereotypes. There’s scope here for a miniseries, but with some impressive editing by Mel Mel Sukekawa-Mooring and—as the Sundance Award rightly acknowledges—a “clarity of vision”, Drucker and Lovell manage to tell both a deeply personal and expansive story that encapsulates so much in under 90 minutes without it feeling rushed. The result is a rich and remarkable film that goes beyond being a deeply moving documentary. As Egyptt, who worked “the stroll” from 1983 until 2001, rightly asserts, this is “an aspect of history that needs to be told”. The Stroll is a vibrant, vital, and urgent historical document.

By James Kleinmann

Debuts on HBO/Max June 21st, 2023.

The Stroll received its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in the US Documentary Competition, winning the US Documentary Special Jury Award: Clarity of Vision. Screens in person and on demand via the festival’s online platform on Sunday, January 29th. Visit the official Sundance website for more details and to purchase tickets.

The Stroll was the opening night selection of the 37th BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival and screens again on Thursday, March 16th 2023 at 3:30pm at BFI Southbank’s NFT3. Head to the BFI Flare website for tickets.

The Stroll | Official Trailer | HBO

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