The CROWN With a SHADOW, the new mixed-media short animated film by gay Tribeca Film Festival award-winner JB Ghuman, Jr., makes its world premiere at the Outfest Film Festival this weekend, starring queer and trans actors including Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman), Oscar winner Tatum O'Neal, and nonbinary performer iRAWniQ, as well as icon Geri Halliwell (a.k.a. Ginger Spice). The tale of a transgender fish named Oliver is based on the real-world gender morphing Pink Skunk Fish, a species that changes sex from male to female during its own lifespan.
When he made the film, Ghuman says, "I was honestly just thinking on my own about species that change gender. I stayed up all night researching and the story literally zapped me in a rush and I literally just began writing. All these notions as I grew up and even today on what's 'natural' and so on. From religion to culture -- all the while what's [really] natural is so diverse throughout our world. It's truly inspiring to comprehend. Thus I wanted to touch on it and share it."
Ghuman's first feature, SPORK, was written around a lead that is intersex with a nonbinary friend and an effeminate male boyfriend. His previous film, The (ART) oF BE(i(NG, is lead by a version of Ariel from The Little Mermaid, though it's multi-dimensional and they change genders throughout.
"I feel drawn to creating stories that try to inspire a bit of a shift in our current society's perspective that center on social algorithms. Blue for boys, pink for girls, and all the tropes anyone could think of. I don't subscribe to division when these bodies we all use are just a blip on the timeline of existence as a whole. All we take with us is the love we give. It's literally science. In the real world, the largest male pink skunk fish will morph into a female if she dies and become the queen. I changed it to the male with the 'strongest heart' and, given Oliver saved the bullies' life repeatedly, he was destined to be Queen. Not because of his muscle strength. But because of his conscious awareness."
Ghuman is a biracial LGBTQ+ filmmaker whose film SPORK held the top spot in its category on Netflix for multiple months. Since then, he's directed and edited over 18 music videos and multiple short documentaries. His most recent experimental film, The (ART) oF BE(i)NG, premiered at Sundance Film Festival. When he is not directing, writing, and producing films, Ghuman teaches art therapy to troubled high school students in South Central Los Angeles.
In his latest, The CROWN With a SHADOW, Paul Reubens stars as Oliver, a young male fish prince destined to be queen. He learns from his queen mother how bodies are simply shells and that the courage it takes to be oneself is the mark of a true queen. "The strongest crown we carry are our hearts," she explains.
Paul Reubens, known best as his classic character Pee Wee Herman, says "JB are I are mutual fans of each other. When he asked me to be part of this project, I jumped at it."
The two gay men met years ago and hit it off. They stayed in touch and as "a lifelong stan of Pee Wee," Ghuman admits, "it's always been a dream to direct him. He's literally a genius. He's always been very much above the line when it comes to society algorithms along with our culture-created lanes."
Still, he admits, having a star like cult-favorite Reubens was intentional, even if the actor is himself not transgender.
"I 100 percent grasp the notion of having representation for stories that have characters played by corresponding humans, whereas I simultaneously believe acting is an expression of art not an expression of identity," says Ghuman. "Equally I'm still an up-and-coming director and having someone like Paul Reubens lead the story would further my ability to get said message of unity to our masses. If the stars aligned and I was fortunate enough to do a feature of the story with a massive system behind me, trust that it'd be chock full of multiple lanes of existence voicing all sorts of roles."
Even more interesting, all the supporting cast are voiced by transgender and nonbinary actors, including a trans masculine squid with top surgery scars voiced by nonbinary LGBTQ+ actor iRAWniQ.
That casting, says Ghuman, "was extremely important to me." And he came by it organically.
"I was tapped to create a documentary on this large-scale event here in LA at the Staples Center called Beautycon. I was given an open format to make said doc, I decided to focus on humans that stuck out to me as beautiful -- but in a real way. And with that in mind, I interviewed a ton of different walks of life."
One of them was Nova Valentina Sylaphet, who is a trans woman, who was randomly at the event with her friends.
"She was beyond insightful," says Ghuman. "She ended up voicing the Turtle and Crab."
Another actor, trans man Sawyer Lee had reached out to Ghuman after the filmmaker was a part of Outfest 2019. He ended up voicing "Gibson" the Shark.
"iRAWniQ has been a close friend of the filmmaker almost a decade now, " Ghuman says. "She/they identify as nonbinary and I've been putting her in all my films for years now. And Nova Donnell and I were friends online for a while and when considering the voice of the Eel I reached out to her. She just had surgery [he laughs] but was a good sport about it and mumbled out her lines. She, like all the above mentioned, is strikingly beautiful. I didn't have a massive budget, which equates to little room for tons of characters or scenes that give rise to dialogue, but I made sure I'd include humans within my own life that'd be represented by the story at large even if the angle is truly meant for all of humanity."
The filmmaker was excited to involve Academy Award winner Tatum O'Neal as a bully shark and the Spice Girls' Geri Halliwell as the queen mother.
O'Neal, a queer Gen X icon since the 1970s, says it was "amazing to be a part of a film that talks to all people," and she took the role because of her previous work with Ghuman. "When he calls about something, it tends to be centered on humanity."
Halliwell says she just loves and respects creativity in any form.
"I'm always drawn to interesting and layered storytelling -- the ones that, on the surface could be taken as 'this is cute' or 'this is visually appealing,' but also if you dig deeper and pay attention, there's a richer message behind it," Halliwell says. "I wanted to be part of bringing this story to life because there's a real uplifting and universal message to be share -- and I think everyone can take something from it."
"Geri Halliwell has been a UK Goodwill Ambassador doing amazing work for our species at large as well as an author for children's books," Ghuman says. "In my mind's eye, a strong British accent was what I kept hearing. Jason Weinberg, Geri's manager, asked if I'd be into casting her. I got uber excited given I had just watched a random video of Geri speaking in a Vogue video interview on how style changes with age but she spoke in the most beautiful way while connecting age to consciousness and self-awareness. It stuck with me."
There is certainly an allegory to be found in the film that speaks to our current world. "To grow up and hear so often what is 'natural' and so on via so many social norms only to realize scientifically, around the planet, what's natural is utterly completely diverse -- and radiant," Ghuman says. "Even to that notion, to be trans doesn't mean you're automatically 'enlightened' nor to be heterosexual equate to being under evolved. In the film, it touches on how we're all in this together. Trans, nonbinary, gay, lesbian, straight, rich, poor, old, young, tall, short, this culture or that all together. And then to look at the species and equate the same kind of harmony to them -- I dunno, it's pretty luminous once any of us start to analyze the entirety of it."
Ghuman also did the original score for the film, combining his own vocal beat-boxing with actual recordings of his heartbeat to speak to the film's title, The CROWN With a (HEART).
"The notion of the film is based on the magnetic heart field around each of our hearts," Ghuman explains. "It's proximity has been speculated to be tied to emotional awareness and so using my own heartbeat in the score felt aligned. Beatboxing felt perfect given in the realm of Chakras and son, the Throat Chakra is the 'truth' center. Oliver was in need of being in touch with his truth and so it also felt aligned to use it."
Ghuman himself, an Indian-American gay man, isn't just a voyeur in the world of trans and nonbinary storytelling.
"As time moves on, I'm increasingly becoming more conscious of my own existence leaning more towards a non-labeled arena," he admits. "I say this given being biracial, it was never that I felt both white and Indian, rather neither. I was lucky enough to be born as such thus it gave me a leg up in curating a perspective that didn't cement me to any social identity. The same is sort of happening with my sexuality. I'm attracted to my same sex -- but I've never felt 'belonging' to large groups of gay men nor when said groups band together to celebrate their identity. I always felt...out of place. Not in a judging way of others, but more so in a way where what I do with my sexual 'self' wasn't exactly a form of identity at all. Sounds odd, but I feel as connected to a random tree as I do to another gay man in the middle of a Pride party."
Ultimately, he says, "I'm a human at this point in time. One day, I'll be dead. And then who knows?"
Still, being mixed race does impact the work he does now, doing art therapy with high school students.
"Growing up I was teased hardcore for being a 'dot head' given my strong Indian name [he was born Jasbir Singh Ghuman] as well as my dark skinned, turban wearing father. But my mother was a pale, white Southern American and since we were low income, some would call me 'white trash.' Yet both would have judgments towards other races."
His high school students today are mostly Black or Latinx, he says, though they may not describe themselves with those labels.
"So both would rival each other yet only come together when it was against white humans," he recalls. "I'd see this 'pattern' from my own biracial families to all other races. It happens in class systems as well, etc. So yeah, I'd sit them all down and repeatedly explain that our skin, bodies, and even cultures aren't our most 'sincere' identifies. They're important, beautiful, and healthy to celebrate. But like all things in life, there are layers. And with that in mind, it's not the base. How we can expand our scopes of ourselves and others is the real base? Some who look like this are cool, some, not so much. The same can be said for anyone who looks like anything."
He too has learned, "Oh gosh, so many things! These kids, all kinds, colors, and creeds are remarkable! Some live in circumstances that are so harsh and yet still open to growing, learning, and above all else, staying kind. Like the film and Oliver saving the same sea life that had just bullied him when the net gathers them up, life can prove to be the hardest when it comes to giving kindness to the same humans that hurt us. It takes a level of strength most of us have to really focus to summon. By curating and doing projects with these kids it not only shows me it's possible, but inspires me to continue onwards in my expression to say as such."
He named his class #ThaExpressionists. "The hashtag will show you all my projects on Insta if you ever get bored," he says.
While he makes changes in the lives of youth, he hopes his little film can help trans people, even a tiny bit, in a world that's hostile to them, especially now that 33 states have introduced over 100 anti-transgender bills.
"It's awful, like, beyond discouraging," he says of the anti-trans backlash. "It's stuff like (this) that sort of drives me to figure out the money, pull it together, move as fast as I can on the script, then figure out a cast that will enable such a story to make its reach as far as it can. Consciousness is truly at the heart of all ignorance in all humans -- from myself to any other. And if there's anything I can do creatively to expand said consciousness, I'll do so."
He says that gender diversity in the natural world "is actually quite common and beautiful and so it's not only kind to accept the transgender community, but natural to do so."
He has a chance of raising awareness, after all, his last film Spork was in the top spot in its category on Netflix for multiple months. He says getting The CROWN With a SHADOW streaming on an outlet with such a global reach after the festival circuit would be a dream. He hopes the movie makes its way around the world and helps enable his own career to do something on a large scale with the same intention. He just wants it to help in any way.
Though The CROWN With a SHADOW is an animated film, Ghuman hopes its message of tolerance reaches as many minds and hearts as possible.
"Grown-ups can learn a thing or two from the story of Oliver," he says. "This film should be mandatory viewing for everyone and their pets."
Halliwell agrees. "I hope they are entertained and they could perhaps start looking at gender in a more fluid way," she says. "Not everything has to be clearly defined as this or that. We could all be more open-minded."
Reubens says the takeaway is simple: "In the way the film illustrates how infinitely rich and complex life is, perception is a force to be reckoned with."
The CROWN With a SHADOW will screen in-person on Sunday, August 15, at 4:30pm and 7:30pm PT at Outfest Film Festival. Virtual screenings are August 16-18. Get tickets here.