There are so many films about women this year that voters actually have choices. Old women, young women, women in love, gay women, suffragettes. But the odd thing about it, though? They’re all white. The door is open but only to one color. At first I thought — why would anyone want to take down Suffragette when films by and about women are so rare. All we ever do is fight for the power of women directors to take the lead yet then when one does she is bashed by social justice bloggers pissed off that the characters in her film are all white. But I’ve come around to a different way of thinking on this (even though I still think it is ultimately counter-productive). Because, yes, we’re seeing a lot more of women in film, but when we see films with predominantly black casts, those casts (this year, at least) are mostly male.
Even in Star Wars, Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t get to play a real live human but instead she just an animated creature — no points for racial diversity when the character isn’t a member of the human race. Straight Outta Compton and Beasts of No Nation, as good as they are – are all about the dudes. The Big Short turns out to be one of the few films out there that gives a black woman a powerful role — well, sure, she’s tangled up in Wall Street shenanigans but at least she’s powerful and not just the girlfriend, mother or wife. The Second Mother, which failed to make the Oscar shortlist, was one of the few films featuring women of color in complex, complicated roles. Sure, we don’t see the same problem faced by women in films from other countries that we do in the American film industry but it’s worth noting nonetheless, especially since it’s an American Oscar committee that chose to exclude the presence of international women.
The Best Actress race has shamefully omitted black women for decades. In the 88 years that the Oscars have been given out, Best Actress only once went to a black actress and that was Halle Berry in 2001. There isn’t anything to be done about it this year but you have to wonder — if they can find roles for Charlotte Rampling, Helen Mirren, Blythe Danner and Maggie Smith, how come they can’t find a role for Cicely Tyson? There are so many opportunities for not just gender swaps but ethnicity swaps in mainstream film.
That brings me to Sean Baker’s divine film, Tangerine. From the first frame to the last Tangerine is one of the biggest surprises of the year both cinematically and in every other way. It sneaks up on you, the emotional impact of this film, because so many interesting dynamics play out in the whirlwind of crazy on the streets of LA where straight men go in search of trans women to have sex with. It’s a thing, of course, and always has been – the “tranny” fetish that some men seek in porn and sex for money. Over the past few years, even the last decade, the perception of trans individuals has changed. Here, we dive into that world and find human beings under the word, the misconception and the stereotype.
Led by two vibrant actresses — Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriquez — Tangerine follows two trans companions around as they take care of each other and their friends in a treacherous world. They aren’t victims but they are vulnerable to the same kind of dangers anyone working the street would be — johns who don’t pay, hate crimes, violence. I love the plot description on IMDb, “A working girl tears through Tinseltown on Christmas Eve searching for the pimp who broke her heart.” That’s the story but Tangerine is so much more than that — it’s cinematic in a unique way that takes the kind of things we see every day on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook (cell phone video capturing real life) and turns it into art, into a surprisingly rich feature film.
Tangerine wouldn’t work if it was merely a camera stunt — “Hey, let’s make a movie on an iPhone.” It works because of the performances — funny and deeply moving especially at the end — of its two leads. There haven’t been many films this year that moved me to the point of tears. I can count them on one hand, really. Room is one. Carol is one. But few films have grabbed my heart so unexpectedly as this one did at the end. Why was it so surprising? After all, friends take care of each other and what’s so unusual about that? I guess because it was a scene, and ultimately a movie, about people whose outward appearance is essential to their inward identity — and to lose that sense of self, even for a few minutes, can mean, for them, the end of everything.
Can Mya Taylor become the first transgender actress to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress and thus, become the only woman of color in any of the acting categories? It’s dangerous to have any hope that this will happen. Voters have to see the movie first. Maybe enough of them will, maybe they won’t, but it’s a long shot.
Hats off to Sean Baker whose film and cast may not get within an inch of the Dolby theater in February, but whose impact on art, whose contribution to rectifying the stark absence of women of color in the film awards race will have much more impact ultimately than probably most of the films that will get in. If you haven’t yet seen Tangerine, seek it out and watch it. It will take you places you’ve never been, to a parallel world of real life evolving in unexpectedly beautiful ways. Tangerine is one of the best films of the year.