Lifelong Learning Via Documentary Films

With all the down time I’ve had as a result of the pandemic, I’ve been trying to catch up on all the films I’ve marked “to-watch” on my various platforms. I don’t know about you, but when I run across a film or television show I want to see I keep track of it so when I’m sitting around trying to figure out what to watch I have a place to start. Honestly, I don’t have a perfect system because in the current climate we’re forced to subscribe to various platforms to enjoy media. Through one means or another I have access to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Google Movies, Disney Plus, HBO Max, YouTube TV, IMDB, and a host of other platforms. There is no great way to keep track of what you want to watch, so as a result I have multiple watch lists. If I had the time and inclination, I could probably cross-reference them all and add them to one single watch list — but who has time for that?

All this is to say I have hundreds of titles available to watch at any given time. Lately though, I’ve been catching up on documentaries. I’ve always considered myself a lifelong learner and often people ask me how I know so much random crap and I usually say I read a ton and I watch educational television and films. Documentary films in particular allow you to do a deep dive on an issue and usually you end up learning something valuable. Yes, some documentaries are more about entertainment and the subject matter can be trivial or frivolous (Tiger King comes to mind), and yes there are far too many true crime documentaries for my taste, although I do watch them sometimes if the subject is of particular interest. I recently watched the Amanda Knox documentary on Netflix because I’ve read a lot about her case and I’m fascinated by the travesty of justice displayed by the Italian court and the focus on a wild but unproven theory about a sexual tryst gone wrong. That poor girl was nearly destroyed simply because she didn’t react “normally” when her roommate was killed.

But what I really look for in a documentary is an opportunity to learn something significant. Some of my all-time favorite docs include Hoop Dreams, Man on Wire, Religulous, When the Levies Broke, Roger & Me, An Honest Liar, Super Size Me, An Inconvenient Truth, Searching for Sugar Man, Sherman’s March, and The Thin Blue Line.

I love me some rock documentaries, especially Amy, Stop Making Sense, and A.K.A. Doc Pomus. I have seen tons of food documentaries, from Food Inc. to Forks Over Knives to The Future of Food. Some documentaries are funny, some are serious, and some are a little of both. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a film is a documentary or a drama, like Zelig or This is Spinal Tap.

These are glorious times if you like documentaries given there are so many streaming sites. Right now I have a few dozen docs lined up in my queue from Crip Camp to 13th to I Am Not Your Negro to What Happened, Miss Simone? I hope to catch up on a bunch of them over the next few weeks given I’m off work.

Earlier this week I watched a documentary that had been in my watchlist for a while but I hadn’t gotten around to it. It is called Disclosure and its about depictions of trans people in Hollywood past to present. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I have to say I learned more about trans people in 1 hour 48 minutes than I had in my previous 54 years on the planet. Disclosure is a series of interviews with trans actors and actresses who share their experiences and thoughts on various key trans moments in film over the years. It features a who’s who of trans actors and actresses, including a few I knew something about like Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono and tons I knew very little about. It was so eye opening.

It may be true the world is awakening when it comes to trans people, and while there’s a long way to go I was struck by a few things I learned in the film. I know this makes sense, and of course it’s true, but there have always been trans actors and actresses in film. It’s just that for the majority of the time the average viewer had no idea we were watching a trans performance. It was fascinating to hear from some of these actors and actresses who performed on film for years without anyone knowing their true gender. I couldn’t imagine having to hide such a significant thing about yourself in order to do your job.

The most striking thing I learned in the film was that up until very recently, like the past couple of years, trans people were ridiculed on the screen and we all thought nothing of it. There were a couple of specific (and loosely related examples) highlighted. Most film fans will remember 1992’s The Crying Game, about a man who unknowingly entered into a relationship with a trans woman. While Jaye Davidson was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, (spoiler alert) upon learning he’s been having sexual experiences with a trans woman Stephen Rea’s character reacted by literally throwing up at the thought of it. Imagine how that might have felt if you were a young trans person watching the film at the time? How horrifically irresponsible of the filmmaker. Two years later blockbuster Ace Ventura: Pet Detective spoofed the scene by having multiple characters throw up simply upon seeing a trans person. In fact, a trans person is the villain in the film. This too is a common theme in Hollywood, that of the villainous trans person — from Psycho to Silence of the Lambs.

I never really thought about trans portrayals on film and on TV. Over the past few months I’ve been watching the Showtime series Billions, which stars TVs first significant non-binary character in Asia Kate Dillon’s Taylor Mason. They are wonderful in the series, but it took until 2016 for Hollywood to write in a non-binary character with some meat to the part. And as for trans characters, they’ve long been subjected to roles as sex workers, murder victims, or comedic interludes.

Disclosure is ultimately a film about the positive turn underway in Hollywood. Trans actors are being taken seriously, and they are getting roles written as trans to be acted by trans actors and actresses. Orange is the New Black was a breakthrough moment for the trans community with Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset portrayed as much more than a sideline character for comedic relief. In fact, Sophia’s storyline is both heartwarming and tragic and it’s definitely not one dimensional. I have not seen the show Transparent, but I understand that while there has been some negative reaction to CIS actor Jeffrey Tambor playing a trans woman, the show does in fact provide some meaty roles for actual trans actors and actresses including Alexandra Billings who is interviewed in Disclosure. And of course there are the Wachowski sisters, Lilly and Lana, who wrote and directed The Matrix films and who are setting the bar for trans power in film.

The bottom line is I had never thought much about trans portrayal in Hollywood but it makes sense that popular opinion of trans people will be both reflected by and influenced by film and television. It’s important if we are going to continue to advance as an inclusive society that we recognize the past and fight for the future. We all have a role to play, and educating ourselves is a good start. I’d like to think I’m already a good trans ally for the trans people I know — and I know more and more people transitioning all the time — but there’s a difference between surface-level knowing and deeper understanding. There are so many lessons for the CIS community in Disclosure that I recommend it for everyone who wants to be a better ally.


3 thoughts on “Lifelong Learning Via Documentary Films

  1. As a side note–not really documentary but what cinephiles call “British kitchen realism” — there’s 𝘼 𝙏𝙖𝙨𝙩𝙚 𝙤𝙛 𝙃𝙤𝙣𝙚𝙮. For anyone who remembers the old bouncy Herb Alpert rendition, you’ll be astounded to see the mixture of grittiness involving racial relations and gay narrative mixed seamlessly into one film. Homosexuality was still banned in England in the early 1960s when the film version is set (and couldn’t really be portrayed as such), so you have to kind of infer what was going on in that part of the film

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