dir. Sean Baker
Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor
Is Tangerine the perfect feminist film of 2015? Can a film that uses the word “bitch” more than any other be feminist? Maybe not, but if you ask me whether feminism needed this film in 2015, the answer is unequivocally YES!
This roller-coaster of a film focuses on two best friends, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), trans sex workers working and living on the streets of Sunset Boulevard. When Sin-Dee, newly released from prison, discovers that her pimp boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her with “real fish”, she sets off on a quest to find her somewhere on the block, much to the dismay of drama-free Alexandra. On the way, we are invited into their struggles, and we glimpse at the reasons behind their entrapment in a system which offers them no other choice but the hustle.
Tangerine is a stand-out for several reasons. It’s a drama-heavy frenzy of emotions that will make you laugh, cry, and seethe with rage. It’s also a beautifully filmed, micro-budget novelty recorded entirely on an iPhone. Most importantly, Tangerine takes seriously the representation and respect of trans women, without sacrificing entertainment in the process. The film is an intersectional feminist dream come true. It has intelligent things to say about class, marginalized identities, and privilege (or lack thereof). The hatred faced by two trans women of colour doing sex work is, as you can imagine, enormous, and the film doesn’t hold back, but does not victimize its leads either. Transphobic acts of violence are treated seriously, honestly portrayed, and the aftermath is acknowledged as painful. Yet it’s the women’s strength, particularly through their unbreakable bond, which ends an otherwise turbulent and painful ride. After learning Alexandra betrayed her, Sin-Dee is verbally attacked and doused with urine by a stranger, ruining her weave, an integral part of her identity and something she couldn’t possibly afford to replace. Her best friend pays to have the unclean clothes dry-cleaned, and offers her own weave, of finer quality, to replace it. In the final shot, Sin-Dee takes her hand in a gesture of forgiveness, offering the viewers hope and the reassurance that female friendship wins out in the end — above boyfriends, poverty, and discriminatory hatred.
The film is feminist because it doesn’t hold back, because it affirms that the stories of trans women are worth telling, because it is a beautiful, funny, thought provoking, entertaining, moving, tear jerking, and ultimately hopeful exploration of friendship in times of insurmountable struggle. Tangerine is hopeful that the bonds between us can carry us through anything, that our solidarity and human connection can allow all of us, including the most marginalized of us, survive another day in this painfully fake, normative, and limiting world.
The casting is another stand out in Tangerine. While Hollywood is eager to offer trans roles to cis white men for award nomination (Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent), it is rare and refreshing to see a film teeming with trans performers filling trans roles. This is not merely a gimmick, but quality casting. Rodriguez’ energy flares as an angry and betrayed woman who refuses to let anyone walk over her, and Mya Taylor offers a more nuanced performance as a loyal friend and aspiring vocalist whose expansive inner life is merely hinted at yet never fully revealed. But probably my favourite casting choice is that of trans actress Mickey O’Hagan as the cis “fish” woman, Dinah—a marvelous “fuck you” to an industry that only offers trans roles to award-hungry cis actors.
We needed Tangerine in 2015 because we need all kinds of films about all kinds of people, films that defy the Hollywood status quo that limits who gets to play a part, and what stories get to be told. Whereas the only way a trans person is represented at the Oscars is as portrayed by a cis white man, the film takes seriously the real experiences of trans people, most significantly in its casting of multiple trans performers in lead roles. The trans characters are not reduced to a punchline, and are influenced by the lived experiences of the actresses portraying them. We need more women in Hollywood, but we especially need more marginalized women: women of colour, queer women, poor women, trans women. Tangerine shows us how boring the Hollywood standard is, that there are more stories to tell in the lives of the real people who are completely erased in the entertainment world.
NICOLE PARTYKA has a Life Science degree which she uses to constantly watch sci-fi film and television. You will probably find her sitting on the floor of a bookstore somewhere in Toronto. Follow her on Instagram here!