Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen opens with a repurposed quote from Sense8.
“Do you know that feeling when you’re sitting in a movie theater, and everyone’s laughing at something, and you just don’t get it?”
In the show, which was a marvelous queer work co-created by trans women that barely gets discussed here, the scene is a reflection of the horrors that characters have just witnessed in the episode prior. In the documentary, it serves as a loose framework for what the audience is about to be lectured on: representation.
In theory, it’s a smart way to kick off a documentary dedicated to exploring what trans representation has looked like for the past century-and-change in popular culture (or, more specifically, on film and television). This history ranges from lazy tropes to modern positive inclusion, covering everything from silent cinema to shows that are currently airing.
By centering trans voices — every single talking head, from actors and directors to critics and professors, on-camera is trans or nonbinary — director Sam Feder does something that is, ultimately, groundbreaking: he lets trans people speak for themselves. Of all the participants, including Alexandra Billings, Bianca Leigh, Brian Michael Smith, Chaz Bono, it’s Laverne Cox and Jen Richards who get the most chance to speak their minds, making note of how something made them feel before quickly moving onto the next subject.
Some of these examinations of clips are genuinely exciting to see. Susan Stryker and Lilly Wachowski musing on Bugs Bunny being one of the most interesting and formative trans feminine images from their youth is riveting, as is Stryker’s stunning examination of D.W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethilia, and how cinematic cuts and aesthetics can imply a transness of their own.
But Feder’s arrangement of the footage is Disclosure’s biggest downfall. The film is unable to maintain any thread of conversation for more than a few minutes, with nary a glimpse of a contextual through-line. It’s a whiplash-inducing movie that never allows any of its interviewees to reflect on any given film or subject beyond surface level.
Every time an academic insight is broached, it is tossed aside for jokey comments or outright undercut by the following speaker. At one point, addressing three Alfred Hitchcock films that included a cross-dressing villain, Cox says dismissively that Hitchcock was “obsessed with people who traverse gender stereotypes being murderers. And the matter is dropped.
Or take the way the film follows up Stryker’s comments on Griffith’s film and queer character. Director Yance Ford is summoned to simply bring up the fact that D.W. Griffith was a racist, before briefly noting the blackface used in 1914's groundbreaking A Florida Enchantment, and then sliding directly into a shallow bit about how black masculinity and cross-dressing have been at odds with each other for decades.
That’s what’s so exhausting about Disclosure: It's the kind of film that has enough time to pat Ryan Murphy, a white cis man, on the back and discuss how he can evolve between creating Nip/Tuck and Pose, but interviews Ford, a black trans man filmmaker, without once discussing his Academy Award-nominated film Strong Island, a 2017 documentary about the murder of Ford's brother William in 1992.
It wants to be an important document about the history of trans cinema while also being a fun and easy-to-digest crowd-pleaser for audiences that never makes them confront anything truly serious. Feder is more preoccupied with close-ups of an interviewee on the verge of tears than with dissecting images of violence against the trans characters who are introduced.
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More often than not, the film gives a pass to cis actors who take trans roles (both fictional and historical) and win awards for them, from Eddie Redmayne to Hilary Swank to Jared Leto. Yet, trans actors who lost roles to cis actors (like Alexandra Billings, who was cast in Transamerica before Felicity Huffman replaced her) aren't given a chance to reflect on their loss. Such clumsiness is compounded by some glaring blind spots: No mention of Tangerine in a film about trans cinema?
It’s an approach to trans representation that lacks nuance and is more interested in chastising what any given source declares as problematic (films like M Butterfly, Tootsie, Psycho, Dressed to Kill, Silence of the Lambs, and dozens more, barely examined) than in exploring the boundaries of what representation can mean. Feder’s Disclosure is closer to VH1’s nostalgia-fueled I Love the... commentary series than it is the seminal book and documentary The Celluloid Closet — though without any of the wit, time to explore, or dedication to chronological flow of history that the former possesses.
People who want to explore what trans representation would do better to explore the writing of trans critics who break down what “trans cinema” can be — Caden Gardner and Willow Maclay’s marvelous Body Talk conversations are a wonderful entry point. What few insights Disclosure offers into queer coding and identification through images that weren’t designed specifically for trans people provide a pleasant reminder that there’s a wealth of queer art out there for those who are willing to seek it rather than wait for what mainstream media has to offer.
Disclosure. Starring Laverne Cox, Chaz Bono, and Ser Anzoategui. 100 minutes. Directed by Sam Feder. Premieres Friday, June 20, on Netflix.