Every Monday throughout June, The Byrd Theatre will celebrate Pride Month with #MonGays, a series spotlighting the LGBTQ community. This week, Tangerine masterfully depicts the lives of black transgender sex workers on the big screen.
Have you ever sacrificed yourself for someone else to make a relationship work? After Sin-dee Rella took the fall for her drug dealing boyfriend and spent the past twenty-eight days in jail she expected some loyalty. When her best friend reveals that her boyfriend has been cheating on her with another woman while she was locked up, Sin-dee loses it and sets off on a comical quest for revenge across Los Angeles.
The plot sounds so classic and relatable it could be a beloved 1990s comedy. The genius behind Tangerine, Sean Baker’s breakaway success from 2015, is that it builds such a familiar storyline around a demographic we rarely see onscreen: black transgender sex workers.
Sin-dee and her best friend Alexandra aren’t treated as exotic or different. Their blackness, their transness, and their livelihoods earned from sex work are never presented as things to separate the characters or audience from one another.
On the contrary, the themes that stitch this diverse cast of characters together — friendship, sacrifice, and a yearning for love — are so timeless and universal that anyone who watches Tangerine will forget all of the markers society would typically evoke to prevent our connecting with characters like Sin-dee and Alexandra. As one movie critic put it: “Finally, a film with transgender main characters that doesn’t focus on the fact that they’re transgendered.”
Over eighty-eight minutes Tangerine allows the humanity of its two protagonists to naturally shine. From the intimate way in which they know each other’s best and worst tendencies to their choice of a simple donut shop as their favorite hangout spot to plan their shenanigans, Sin-dee and Alexandra are afforded a level of personification and richness normally denied trans characters.
Zakia McKensey, the Executive Director of Nationz Foundation, says she was “captivated by the trailer for the film, because the experiences of the characters are reflective of the lived experiences of transgender women in America.”
Society often judges those who engage in sex work to make a living; however, the isolation and prejudice that face many trans people often mean they are shut out from the formal economy. Tangerine “shows a perspective of the survival mode that some transgender women have to resort to, due to discrimination, oppression, unemployment, and being disowned by their families,” explained McKensey.
After the victories of LGBTQ rights under the Obama administration and the broader sea change of American public opinion from grudging tolerance to acceptance, it can be all too easy to believe that homophobia and transphobia is declining. Although that may be true at the societal level, the policies of the current administration don’t reflect this.
The Trump regime’s allowance of doctors to refuse to treat trans patients, adoption agencies to turn away potential LGBTQ parents, and homeless shelters to shut out trans people prove that the rainbow sheen of our modern era only goes so deep. This is why McKensey sees screening Tangerine at the Byrd as “an amazing opportunity to bring awareness to the transgender community and unite folks to understand that Transgender Women of Color are being murdered daily, denied so many rights, have no protections, and only want to live, exist, and be their best selves.”
The hostility of the moment only increases the importance of helping a broader swath of American society to identify with black trans people. So when Nationz Foundation was approached by Virginia Pride to sponsor week two of MonGays, McKensey made her decision in the blink of an eye. “I wanted to participate in MonGays because we’re excited to be an African American, trans-led organization afforded the opportunity to be a part of a monumental moment in Pride history here in Richmond.”
For those less interested in representation and queer politics than in pure filmmaking, Tangerine offers attendees the chance to watch a movie filmed entirely using three iPhone 5S devices. As the first phone-shot film to win at Sundance, Baker’s film earned him wide notoriety as a director pushing the envelope of technique in order to tell the poignant stories of the downtrodden. The simplicity of his cinematography will offer Richmonders an unfettered look at the humanity of black trans characters — one we seldom see on the silver screen.