A French film playing at the Toronto International Film Festival has sparked controversy for casting a cisgender actor as the transgender lead.
A Good Man, directed by Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, follows a trans man, Benjamin (Noémie Merlant), as he decides to carry a child after his partner, Aube (Soko), learns she cannot.
While some film critics have praised the "great empathy" of the film, others have questioned the casting of Merlant, a cisgender woman who became an international name after starring in the acclaimed queer period romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Bryan Glick, a buyer at TIFF, called out the festival on Facebook for showcasing a film centered on a transgender man that lacks trans and nonbinary inclusion in its major roles.
"How does the #TIFF2020 think this is even remotely okay in 2020?" Glick asked. "France has 67 Million people, so it's not like they couldn't find a single trans man to play the part. Of course the writer, director, stars are all cis. So much for truly supporting diversity and inclusion."
Hammer to Nail, a film blog, noted that A Good Man is the fifth film centering on trans characters showcased at TIFF since 2015 that has "been led by cisgender actors with little transgender crew or support." Previous problematic entries included Girl, The Assignment, 3 Generations, and The Danish Girl. While the blog praised this year's selection of No Ordinary Man, a trans-inclusive film about a Black jazz magician, "it does not erase a long track record of insensitive programming and a lack of acknowledgment that they have yet rectify the situation," the blog stressed.
Film festivals are integral to giving productions a platform for acquisition and accolades during awards season. For example, after the 2018 film Girl — a controversial production in which a cisgender man was cast as a trans ballerina who engages in self-mutilation — won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival, it was acquired by Netflix and received a Golden Globe nomination.
By casting a cisgender star as the lead of a trans film, Mention-Schaar is following a discriminatory Hollywood casting tradition in which prominent cis names like Jared Leto, Hilary Swank, and Eddie Redmayne receive Oscar nominations and a career boost for portraying the lives of marginalized people. Recently, Scarlett Johansson and Halle Berry turned down trans roles after listening to outrage from trans actors, who due to this history of bias are almost never able to play trans roles in high-profile productions. This is a history chronicled in-depth in Netflix's recent documentary Disclosure.
Mention-Schaar, anticipating criticism, defended her choice of casting Mention-Schaar in the film's Cannes program notes by citing Swank's Oscar-winning performance in Boys Don't Cry as precedent, as well as a lack of out trans actors in France. She also pointed to her casting of trans actor Jonas Ben Ahmed in a cis role as a progressive move.
“For me, it would be stupid, unfair and counter-productive to only give trans roles to trans actors and cis roles to cis actors,” Mention-Schaar said in The Wrap's translation of the notes. “Before his gender, his sexual identity, his skin color, an actor or an actress is above all an actor or actress. And I believe the character that he or she embodies needs his technique and his talent.”
As trans film critic Danielle Solzman told The Wrap, however, "The idea that filmmakers can’t find trans-masculine actors is complete BS. It just proves to show that they aren’t looking hard enough.”