ith a deadly virus outbreak that literally changed our daily lives overnight and worldwide outrage at the senseless and historical killing of Black people, the last few months have been extremely heavy. We’re still in the middle of it today!
February seems so long ago when the Sundance Film Festival actually took place. Since then, so much has happened where our communities, especially Black and Indigenous communities, have been hit the hardest. In turn, our priorities had to change and our capacity to write and publish coverage took a backseat.
While this isn’t the ideal time for many of us to be working, we decided to push ahead and present our commentary and critiques. As people are actively searching for education around issues of equity and looking for ways to do better, my hope is my writing and my reviews can add to robust public discourse. How these screenings are relevant in the issues they highlight, both intentionally and unintentionally (by missing the mark). I think in a lot of ways it’s better to release these pieces now in the current climate so that conversations can be had with the public who can actually screen them (and need to). Engaging media is one way that we make sense of the world around us, and these films are important points of engagement around topics relevant to queer and trans people of color.
Documentary focusing on the ways Hollywood depicts transgender people on screen. This serves to be a very educational tool in how insensitive and transphobic film and television has been since forever! Any medium that humanises marginalised groups is so important in changing minds that deem them inhuman and unworthy of respect and rights. That shift is what can save lives.
While Laverne Cox was largely featured and acts as an Executive Producer on the project, it still had some problematic aspects as far as erasure is concerned, which is ironic given that erasure was an issue this documentary sought to address. Notably, white trans actress Jen Richards comments on how the Kardashians are basically hijacking full lips and curvy figures from trans women who she attributes those aesthetics to. Everybody knows that these are features that Black cis women have been under attack for historically, while white women get celebrated — and the Kardashians specifically and shamelessly model their own aesthetics after. This points to not just the erasure of Blackness, but also the erasure of cis womanhood in ways that deserve more attention than is given in the flippant remarks. Taking credit for the Kardashians’ looks (who are cis women) but not wanting to credit Black cis women for them plays into a particular anti-Black misogyny in queer and trans discourse. As it turns out, they ended up re-shooting this particular segment prior to its Netflix release; but I found it pointless since it didn’t come out much better. I wrote more about how things went down at the Q&A here.
Directed by James D Stern and Fernando Villena, this documentary follows the lives of six students as they compete against fellow high schoolers from around the country in the August Wilson Monologue Competition in New York City. Sundance announced this documentary as receiving the Festival Favorite Award, selected by audience votes from the 128 features screened this year. This did not get my vote for a number of reasons.
The biggest one being how contrived it felt in creating the narratives of these young children that pandered to white viewers. The first kid interviewed was a young boy who spoke about how he was considered an “oreo” in his hometown — brown on the outside, white on the inside — because he liked Shakespeare and didn’t play basketball. It was almost like he took a sense of pride in the label and I immediately recognised it because I’ve been there myself. Growing up, "white supremacy" was very much a part of my extended family. On my Dad's side, there were relatives who cherished a portrait of our "German forefathers" because it was a privilege for us to share their lineage even though they colonised Samoa, had us working plantations and put on display in human zoos in Germany. On my Mum's side, the majority of her generation of eight brothers and sisters took on white partners as it was seen as a way to survive and even elevate in status. I internalised so much of this. Combine that with all of society's messaging of whiteness being the standard of beauty and intelligence, it's no surprise that I was clinging to any proximity to whiteness I could get my hands on. That’s what I felt as the directors focused on the boy’s love for Shakespeare while making no mention of any Black playwrights or authors, including the brilliant and critically acclaimed works of August Wilson this documentary is supposed to revolve around. Leaving out any reference to non-white artists, it was as if inspiration and excellence can only be found through the white gaze. There was so much to unpack here but exploring that level of complexity was passed up in favour of this limiting story.
Another young boy’s interview started off with “I grew up in The Housing Projects. There’s gun shootings every day.” If that wasn’t enough to incite shock value, he went straight into how he had no male role models present in his life — his father was absent as were the fathers of his siblings. This is how the director chose to open his world to us. Putting him in this poor/violent/broken box. While this may be his truth, these didn’t need to be the first words out of his mouth in setting up the narrative. It’s manipulative and quite frankly, it’s disgusting. At this point, Best Friend let me know I could stay and keep watching, but she was done with it. She got up out of her seat and I followed her out of the theatre. Because I never saw the whole documentary, I can’t say whether it got better and redeemed itself, but what I did see was hurtful and problematic. Unfortunately this is what is palatable for white people and therefore profitable and this is what is being heralded and rewarded with accolades and rave reviews.
Set in LA 1989, Anna works in music television and wears her hair natural. Once her boss is replaced by Zora who tells her “your nappy hair has to go”, success comes her way but it also turns out the weave has a mind of its own. Starring Lena Waithe and Laverne Cox. This movie was quirky and fun, mixing the frights and absurdity of a B-grade horror with the comedy of a Black spoof. Almost like “Toxic Crusader” meets “Scary Movie” but with more suspense and drama. If you’re a Janet Jackson Stan™️ like I am, you’ll get a kick out of Kelly Rowland’s pop star character as well as the entire Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis/Teddy Riley inspired soundtrack that’s living and breathing throughout this fictional world. During his introduction, writer/director Justin Simien mentioned how he wants people to take bigger risks and create content that has people saying “WTF was that?!” Looking around the audience, it felt like he achieved just that. I think Justin created something outside of the box and he’s leading by example as far as taking risks goes. An extra nod to Lena Waithe who was hilarious in her role too.
I think it’s worth mentioning this weird situation I found myself in related to the movie. At one particular awards night, I met a gay couple and one of the first things that came out of their mouths was an invitation for a threesome (actually, it was more of a demand than an invitation). As inappropriate as it was, it got much worse when during the exchange, one of them made it known that they work for one of the big studios and asked the question “you want to be in the industry don’t you?” Gross. Whatever “power” he might have, I don’t think it’s the first time he’s used that line to abuse it. I declined and said I had to leave for a midnight screening of “Bad Hair.” That was when things took an especially nasty turn. The development executive told me not to see it because it sucked. “I know Lena and Justin and trust me, it’s really not worth watching.” So I was supposed to pass up a “crappy” screening to screw him. I let him know that I could make my mind up for myself and that it’s unprofessional and ugly for a white man to be out here openly trashing the work of Black artists, especially to media critics and journalists. This was when he told me he is not white — “I’m half Armenian.” This is the kind of behaviour displayed by someone who is employed to help develop diverse talent. I’m not surprised given that this is how Hollywood rolls, but that does not make him or his remarks any less offensive. Especially at a festival that was created to nurture and uplift diversity in filmmaking.
Love letter to extravagant Puerto Rican astrologer, psychic and gender nonconforming legend, Walter Mercado aka Shanti Ananda who disappeared mysteriously in 2007. The way I read the synopsis in this film, I watched thinking the whole story was going to culminate in his kidnapping and/or murder. I was pleasantly surprised to find out this was not the case and that his “disappearance” was a result of a series of legal troubles putting the brakes on his career and needing to take a step back from the media. The doc touched briefly on his sexuality which he kept private (and that’s his business of course!), but you could see it was to protect himself from the very religious, Catholic intolerance of homosexuality in Puerto Rico. He could express himself anyway he wanted as long as he didn’t explicitly say he was anything other than a heterosexual man. While it was a sweet tribute to Mercado, I will say this is just one of countless examples of how Latinadad will really have you thinking Black people don’t exist! I didn’t see a single Black person in all their shots of Puerto Rico.
By day, a barista named Cassie leads an ordinary life at her café working alongside her boss (played by Laverne Cox) but at night she has a vendetta to dish out punishment to men in attempts to heal from past trauma. I felt like I was the only person in the theatre who hated this film. It reeked of white feminism. The protagonist named Cassie, a white woman, has a friend who was raped on campus during their college days and ultimately commits suicide. In the name of revenge, Cassie exacts her own version of justice on unsuspecting men in clubs and eventually looks for answers about the sexual assault from her alma matar. She storms into the office of the Dean of Students who states that her hands were tied because she didn’t have enough evidence to take action, citing “we need to assume innocence until proven guilty.” I watched as the white women around me glared at this onscreen villain like complete filth. Are we forgetting Emmett Till?
This narrative completely dismisses this country’s history of Black men who were killed as a direct result of lies told by white women. You only have to google Amy Cooper to see a recent example of how they weaponise their white tears, call the police for made up offences, fake their distraught, knowing this could get a Black man killed. If she wasn’t caught on camera, he could be dead today. For all she knew, she could have gotten a different Black man killed in Central Park. But she didn’t care about that. So yes, without trivialising a very complex issue, we should not scoff at the idea of innocence until proven guilty.
Radha, a once-promising playwright, is barreling toward the stigma of being single and a struggling artist at the age of 40. Facing nonstop rejections from the theatre community while teaching a motley group of teens, she comes creatively re-invigorated when she returns to rapping, her long forgotten passion. This was probably one of my favourite screenings at Sundance — there were moments where I was cracking up so hard because it was so fun and real. She didn’t romanticise being a struggling artist, but you definitely got to enjoy yourself and laugh with her along the way as she navigated the ups and downs of theatre and its politics. Questions of compromise and integrity in her dreams, her career, and her personal relationships all come up with a smartness and a sweetness. From the animated kids she taught to her budding romantic life and the hilarious love/hate relationship with her neighbours (the homeless gentleman who reads her for filth had me DYING), I highly recommend checking this one out. Eager to see more of Miss Radha Blank.
Zola meets Stefani at a restaurant where Zola waitresses, and the two immediately click over pole dancing. Only a day after they exchange numbers, Stefani invites Zola on a cross country road trip where she finds herself trapped on the craziest most unexpected trip of her life. Based on the series of actual Tweets by Zola, this had all the good elements of an action/thriller/crime drama! This turned out to be my other favourite screening with Taylour Paige killing her role as the server-turned-pimp. She’s a solid actress with a great physicality (slash physique, OOP!) so she was dazzling the crowds in the strip club on screen as well as in the theatre in Utah. The actress who played Stefani had me wanting to rip her head off, so she clearly played her role well, too. Read the tweets if you haven’t already! They’re a work of art in their own right. It’s great to know that real life Aziah ‘Zola’ King was part of the writing process and stands by it as capturing her essence.
Check out this Interview with Jovan James and Elegance Bratton!