Lupe is yet another film telling a story about a transgender woman and once again, there is a cisgender actor portraying the role.
(EDIT: I covered the film remotely and didn’t have access to any press notes in early 2019 when I wrote my initial review. Now that the film is going to be available on HBO/HBO Max, I’m only learning through the press tour that the lead actor came out as non-binary. Had I had this information back in 2019, I would have wrote my review differently. But at the time, I could only utilize the information made available, which meant searching the web and finding nothing about the lead actor’s gender identity. Without finding anything, I could only make an assumption. Also, nobody reached out from the film team to let me know.)
Where do I even start to begin? For starters, I’m so done with the whole transition stories with a cisgender actor playing trans. I am beyond done. How many more of these stories are out there? There’s got to be a better way for filmmakers to tell transgender stories. For one, can you please have a transgender actor in a leading role? Yes, there’s trans actress Celia Harrison in a supporting role but that’s about it it.
To their credit, André Phillips and Charles Vuolo do attempt to comment on common transgender stereotypes. They also use their script to comment on some of the transphobia in minority communities. This comes when Rafael–yet to adopt Lupe as a name–walks by boxing trainer Arun (Kadeem Henry) while dressed in femme. A later moment between the two references this encounter but Arun wants nothing to do with Rafael.
This is the other problem with Lupe. Rafael presents as male on screen way longer than presenting as a woman. Yes, no transition is different but at the same time, this film is not going to help transgender youth feel confident in themselves. Or other transgender woman struggling to come out because Rafael mostly presents as a man. Again, to the film’s credit, there are scenes between Rafael and Lana (Celia Harrison) where Rafael is in femme. But these scenes are so few and far between.
There are those moments where you truly feel scared for Rafael. One such moment is when a man (Matt Saxon) follows them off the subway. This happens for a few blocks and you can sense the uneasiness on Rafael’s part. This sort of segues into a conversation about Rafael’s feelings for men.
For the most part, this film is about Rafael and the never-ending search for sister Isabel (Lucerys Medina). It’s a search that takes Rafael from Cuba to New York. While searching for Isabel, Rafael reunites with a fellow Cuban, Elsa (Christine Rosario). Rafael is able to rescue Elsa from a world of prostitution. Isabel is somewhere within this world but finding her in the big city is not going to be an easy feat. While there’s still a focus on searching for Isabel, Lupe is more or less focusing on a macho boxer coming to terms with identity as a transgender woman.
DIRECTORS/SCREENWRITERS: André Phillips and Charles Vuolo
CAST: Rafael Albarran, Christine Rosario, Celia Harrison, Kadeem Henry, Claudia Muñiz, Lucerys Medina