Directed by #SamFeder
Sam Feder’s documentary, Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, arrived to Netflix five months after its Sundance premiere. In that time, the world has been shook by COVID-19 and BLM. Notably, the film shares its title with the infamous “sex is power” thriller directed by Barry Levinson. That 1994 film had Michael Douglas’ businessman being sexually harassed by Demi Moore’s character. Feder’s film explores the misrepresentation of the transgender community in Hollywood and, consequently, its impact on American culture. Titles aside, the two films couldn’t be more different.
Feder offers us a revealing alternative journey through Hollywood history. We begin at an unlikely junction with D.W Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia (1914). Historian Susan Stryker calls our attention to a scene where the biblical heroine beheads a lecherous general. An early example of a cut then appears. Then, we are suddenly outside the general’s tent, where a “trans-gender, non-binary” character is seemingly hovering over proceedings. Stryker recognises the significance. “A cut figure presides over the invention of the cinematic cut…trans and cinema have grown up together. We have always been present on-screen”. Stryker’s observation is shared by a range of trans-gender personalities throughout the film who express that trans-representation on screen has often been far from positive.
In particular, the 1990s seem to have been a hotbed for the transgender issue. Feder’s guests talk lovingly about the progressive Paris is Burning (1990) before recoiling in horror at derogatory moments in The Crying Game (1992) and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994). Then, in 1999, comes a real breakthrough with Hilary Swank’s Oscar-winning performance in Boys Don’t Cry (1999). “We’ve come a long way”, Swank said back to Hollywood itself, opening her acceptance speech for Best Actress. Yet, even a landmark like Kimberly Peirce’s film poses problems. Some speak of a powerfully felt resonance and liberation when seeing the film; others highlight the factual inaccuracies in retelling of the story of a murdered trans-man. We then come up to date, in fact with Netflix itself, with Orange Is The New Black. Laverne Cox, herself a prominent interviewee in the documentary, earned an Emmy Nomination for her role as Sophia Burset, marking the first time an openly transgender person received such a nomination in any acting category.
In his book on Hollywood Cinema, Richard Maltby expresses that “it is more accurate to describe Hollywood as having several interconnected histories than to impose a single dominant perspective”. Disclosure puts forward not only an interconnected history but also a new history, a heartfelt cry against the machinations that can hide within the dream factory.