Magnolia Pictures’ New York City offices in Chelsea hum with hushed misgivings of thwarted sleep and humidity-frizzed wigs. It’s 9 a.m., Sunday, June 28 (the morning of NYC Pride), and the cast of Tangerine has gathered with coffee and breakfast sandwiches, awaiting instruction for the long day ahead. Aside from quiet pleas for Mother Nature to literally not rain on their parade, there’s excitement in the air. They prep this morning to board the official Tangerine Pride float, which is slated to join the March’s Fifth Avenue ranks at noon. Cast and crew are then due in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood for Tangerine’s New York premiere; it’s the official closer of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual BAMcinemaFest.
In an age where micro-budget queer film rarely finds its way beyond the Outfest circuit (much less the light of day), here’s Tangerine: a trans-themed, high-octane, can’t-look-away-car-crash of an indie poised to kick off Pride and wrap a film festival all in one Sunday. So what’s the T?
Shot completely on an iPhone 5S, the Sundance hit from writer-director Sean Baker and cowriter Chris Bergoch is first and foremost the story of Sin-Dee (voracious newcomer Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a transgender sex worker hot off a month in jail. When she learns that her pimp-turned-boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) hasn’t been faithful through her sentence, she and street sister Alexandra (fellow newcomer Mya Taylor) set sail in stilettos on a Christmastime revenge tale unlike any other.
For 88 minutes, Baker dances through Los Angelean ghettos — particularly those around the intersection of Santa Monica and Highland — and showcases an assortment of trans sex workers surviving their unforgiving day-to-day. The fact that this “day” happens to be Christmas Eve just amplifies our protagonists’ plight. Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s holiday guests are heartbreak, hate crime, and the occasional two-timing husband, but their ability to play hostess with an unhinged, un-PC humor charms them as a dynamic duo for the ages.
“When I first started talking to Sean, I wanted it to be funny, and I wanted it to be real,” Taylor says of her early attachment to the film. “This is the bottom line: Santa Monica and Highland is a real area, and everything that really goes on in that area is what was actually in the movie. I wanted it to be very raw. I wanted it to tell the story of all those girls that are in that area that don’t have a voice of their own. I wanted to be that voice.”
Taylor stands now on East 37th Street, alongside Tangerine’s orange and black float. A light drizzle sheaths Manhattan as she continues to recount her first meeting with Baker and Bergoch. The filmmakers walked into her Los Angeles neighborhood’s LGBT center one day and began speaking with clients and workers to learn about the area. “Everybody was being so mean to them,” she says, “but I was very nice because that’s just my personality. Sean fell in love with me and wanted me to do the movie.” Lucky for them, Taylor is a devilishly smooth knockout. Don’t be surprised when she launches a supporting actress campaign this awards season.
Just shy of 2 p.m., Tangerine’s float finally lurches forward. “We are the stars of the film, Tangerine!” the float’s DJ calls out while cranking up her dubstep, trap, and hip-hop soundtrack. Several other Pride-goers join for the ride, including RuPaul’s Drag Race alum April Carrion, New York drag queen Sasha Pierce Davenport, and two of the boys from acclaimed Sundance doc The Wolfpack. With Azealia Banks’s “212” heralding Tangerine’s grand entrance onto Fifth, the morning showers clear, and within the hour, the sun shines to burn.
Right on time, the film’s star, Ms. Rodriguez, unexpectedly arrives. The young actress has been all but absent from Tangerine’s media rounds due to alleged illness, and while she—in a comically drastic difference from her crass Sin-Dee—remains largely reserved in the float’s front right corner, her presence is a welcome one. “Run the World (Girls)” even encourages her to briefly turn it out with Carrion and co.
Looking around at the cheering cast and crew, it’s clear that there is a bond and—for a lack of a better word—a pride surrounding Tangerine. But one can’t be blamed for wondering: Despite trans talents such as Taylor and Rodriguez providing vital insight for Baker and Bergoch’s script, what business do two cisgender white men have telling this story in the first place?
“You hear this over and over again: Write what you know. And while that’s true to a certain extent, Sean and I have taken a liking to writing what we don’t know,” Bergoch explains. “But with that comes the responsibility of doing your research. You have to do these stories proud if you’re going to jump into these lives that you’re not a part of.”
Tangerine still lacked a script when Taylor introduced the writing partners to Rodriguez, her longtime friend, over two years ago, but it was the rapport between Taylor and Rodriguez that switched the light bulb on and brought the film charging ahead.
“When we saw the two of them together, Sean and I gave each other this knowing look: ‘These might be more than collaborators. We might be seeing the movie in front of our eyes,’” Bergoch recalls.
That’s how these characters—their queeny vernacular, their distressing stories—came to life.
“It initially began as an exploration of that neighborhood. It’s first and foremost about a very particular [area] that’s known for transgender sex workers," Bake explained during a Q&A at the sold-out BAM crowd later Sunday evening. "We went in there without imposing any sort of plot or script. Chris and I went in there with the intention of collaborating and taking universal themes—friendship, infidelity, jealousy—and then trying to find that story in that neighborhood through finding people to work with. First, the focus was on sex workers, and then, of course, the fact that it took place there, it was about transgender sex workers.”
Whether it be teenage punks enacting cruelty or police officers overextending their authority, all instances of harassment in the film are based on real-life events. And Tangerine’s supporting cast of colorful trans personalities are also all trans talents, themselves cast via open call, Vine, YouTube, and even Craigslist.
“Sean gave us the platform to be ourselves [through] a lot of the film,” Rodriguez tells the BAM audience. “He allowed us to give a lot of our own input. Everyone had their own voice.”
Tangerine makes for a by-and-large unprecedented and completely unique film. While that alone is enough to leave an impression, it’s not lost on its filmmakers that their Duplass Brother-funded indie is making its debut at a very special moment in the LGBT civil rights movement. For the past several years, the ‘T’ of LGBT has slowly been demanded the justice its men and women have long deserved.
“When we started on this journey, Sean and I had no way of knowing that some of this subject matter would sort of be in the cultural zeitgeist,” Bergoch says. “It’s just bizarre. The stars really aligned for [us] to be a part of this movement—this cultural awakening.”
This “cultural awakening” is perhaps reflected best in the Obama administration. In January 2015, President Obama historically became the first sitting president to vocalize support for the transgender community in his annual State of the Union Address. He’s also named transgender political appointees and made efforts towards equality in the workplace for transgender government workers. And looking to 2009, his hate crimes bill better protects transgender individuals from discrimination—the first federal civil rights legislation of its kind.
It’s impossible to pinpoint the precise origins of the trans community’s watershed moment, but it’s no doubt in part thanks to the various representations of the trans experience in contemporary film, television, and entertainment media at large. In 2007, Candis Cayne became the first trans actress on network primetime in ABC’s short-lived Dirty Sexy Money. Since then, advocate-entertainers like Laverne Cox have paved the way for trans actors the world over. Just in the last few months, the Orange is the New Black star has posed nude for Allure, become the first trans woman to be immortalized in wax at Madame Tussauds San Francisco, helped raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS at the record-breaking 2015 Broadway Bares, and stole the show with her moving GLAAD Media Awards speech.
In other sects of the industry, it’s also a year that’s seen Janet Mock become a New York Times bestselling memoirist; model Hari Nef become the first trans woman signed to IMG Worldwide; Jill Solloway’s Transparent sweep the Golden Globes’ floor; the Wachowskis’ Sense 8 further de-stigmatize transgender sex with Jamie Clayton; and, of course, one of our sports world heroes introduce herself as Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce) on the June cover of Vanity Fair. It’s also a year that’s seen Miley Cyrus refuse to label her gender and sexuality while launching the Happy Hippie Foundation. Further, actor-musician Jaden Smith publicly defied gender norms while wearing a dress, and fellow A-lister child Shiloh Jolie-Pitt has begun identifying as John Jolie-Pitt to little fanfare. Coming up, we’ve got ABC’s Becoming Us, TLC reality series All That Jazz, Eddie Redmayne-starrer The Danish Girl, and Big Brother’s first transgender houseguest.
But even with all this, Tangerine stands out. While many of the narratives being brought to the spotlight today are ones of redemption (Caitlyn Jenner), transition (Transparent), or heroism (The Danish Girl), Tangerine is brutally and unflinchingly matter-of-fact with the systematic oppression that faces many transgender Americans. It’s a snapshot into the harsh realities of the issues without becoming an issue film. Consider this: A recent study found that transgender Americans—which by some counts clocks in at 700,000 people—are four times more likely to make less than $10,000 per year when compared to their cisgender counterparts. Take into account the systematic economic oppression that is the reality for many Americans of color, and somewhere at the bottom of that pool is where you’ll find the sex workers at Santa Monica and Highland.
Despite its heavy content, it was utmost importance to star Mya Taylor that Tangerine not become weighted in sentimentalism. “It’s more of a story about the two characters,” she says. And costar Mickey O’Hagan (who plays Dinah, the cisgender “fish” woman behind Chester’s affairs) agrees. “I’ve been to so many screenings where afterwards, people say, ‘That reminds me of my friends. That reminds me of fights that I’ve had,’” she says. “Within 10 minutes, you forget [Sin-Dee and Alexandra] are transgender. They’re just human beings.”
So no, Tangerine may not have an explicitly political agenda, and there may be no third-act redemption or comfortable resolution for its subjects, but the unfiltered peek inside their lives resonates all the more powerfully for its dedication to the real. Its nuanced portrayal of this specific trans truth is triumphant. It’s important to remember, too, that while based in reality, Tangerine is simply one story, one reality. The trans experience is a richly diverse and historic tapestry.
“Some trans people are sex workers, some are librarians. Some of their parents throw them out, some of their parents accept them and love them,” says trans actress Eve Lindley, who costars with Taylor in the upcoming Happy Birthday Marsha. “It’s impossible to say, ‘This is the one story that you need to hear about trans people,’ and that’s why this movement is happening.”
Visibility is key for this movement to continue happening. In all likelihood, the audience Tangerine reaches will pale in comparison to the millions who’ve seen Caitlyn Jenner’s “Call Me Cait” cover, but it seems that the visibility of Jenner’s transition is more about acceptance while that of Tangerine is an opportunity for advocacy. Sin-Dee and Alexandra embody the downtrodden that celebrities-turned-advocates like Jenner are fighting for.
There’s still work to be done and more stories to be told. Just earlier this month, Alabama’s Mercedes Williamson, age 17, became the ninth trans woman murdered in the U.S. since January. And her tactics aside, President Obama’s now-famed heckler, Jennicet Gutiérrez, exemplifies the fact that there is and will continue to be need for advocacy and advancement for the nation’s impoverished trans persons of color.
“I never in a million years thought that Tangerine would be what it is today,” Taylor concedes. “A lot of people come up to me and say that it’s very inspiring and they love that I actually made the story, [but] there’s a lot more stories that need to be told.”
And that’s the T.
Tangerine opens July 10 in select theaters. Watch the trailer below: