While the year 2015 may have ended with a film starring a cisgender male playing a trans women, there were two films that starred transgender women in leading roles and one of those was Sean Baker’s Tangerine.
Baker has this mysterious ability at finding unknowns with the potential for on-screen talent. He did it with The Florida Project and this was no different with Tangerine with the casting of newcomers Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. More importantly, Baker & Chris Bergoch’s screenplay helps to shine a light on a community that’s even more marginalized then the general trans community: the POC trans community. It’s a community that still feels under-represented and while no doubt, there are likely many people wanting to trans filmmakers to be the ones to tell trans stories, this film feels very authentic to telling the stories of transgender experience.
Rodriguez stars as Sin-Dee Rella and it’s late December. She’s fresh out of jail and with the help of her best friend, Alexandra (Taylor), they track down her boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone). Chester’s a pimp and she wants to find out whether or not the rumors are true about him cheating on her. The journey takes them through areas of Los Angeles that are often ignored on screen, much like the low-income projects that Baker brought light to with this fall’s film, The Florida Project.
There are transgender people often turn to sex work because they can’t find any work and transitioning is not going to finance itself. It’s not an ideal situation but it’s a shame but that’s where things are at for the transgender community. Just as important though, up until a few years ago, it was hard to find transgender talent playing transgender roles on screen. Films like Tangerine and Boy Meets Girl are helping to turn the tide. There’s no excuse to for any filmmaker to still be casting cisgender people in transgender roles so a lot of credit goes to Baker and team for casting a pair of trans actresses in leading roles. It helps add a sense of authenticity to Tangerine.
Baker and Radium Cheung teamed up to provide the film’s cinematography and this is where they should be commended in every aspect. They shot the entire film on an iPhone and it’s just absolutely unbelievable. For a film shot on an iPhone, the look is still astonishing as the visual imagery appears grainy but saturated. If this wasn’t enough, Baker proved himself to be a quadruple-threat given that he edited the film on top of everything else.
This is where I go from review territory into personal territory. This is where filmmakers like Sean Baker don’t realize the kind of role that they played in my life. I wouldn’t have come out as transgender in 2015 without all the transgender awareness and education during the year, be it Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black), Boy Meets Girl, Transparent, Tangerine, or Caitlyn Jenner. Throw in writing an action comedy novel to sort through my feelings and I ended up coming out to myself in November 2015. I’m still bummed that I was unable to attend the Q&A screening of The Florida Project in September to personally thank Sean Baker in person for not only making this film but doing so with trans talent in leading roles.
Among films released in 2015, Tangerine should be considered essential viewing.
Director: Sean Baker
Screenwriters: Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch
Cast: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O’Hagan, James Ransone, Alla Tumanian
Distributed by Magnolia Pictures, Tangerine is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD. As of the end of 2017, it is streaming on Netflix.