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‘Tangerine’: A Step Forward Towards Representation of the Transgender Community in Film?

Last year in my filmmaking foundations class, I had the opportunity to watch the film Tangerine. Tangerine follows the events that unfold after a transgender prostitute finds out her pimp boyfriend was cheating on her while she served jail time. What I and many audience members found fascinating about the film was the fact that it was shot entirely on an iPhone. Despite being shot on a device that many of us use on a daily basis, the quality of the film was surprisingly comparable to conventional films. It proved that you don’t need expensive gear to create something impactful.


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But what made the film such a sensation at the time of its release in 2015 was its efforts in bringing to the surface the abuse, dilemmas, and hardships that come with being a POC transgender sex worker. All of these identities were and still are considered taboo and looked down upon. The film brought up mixed reviews; many praised Director Sean Baker for casting transgender women in the lead roles and making a film about transgender struggles, while critics pointed out the lack of transgender input in the film’s production process.

Personally, upon viewing the film, I was absolutely shocked. I hadn’t the slightest idea what the lives of trans women of color in the sex industry were like. The amount of abuse they go through psychologically and physically was gut-wrenching. The film gave a raw depiction of the pains of work and relationships trans women deal with, on top of the rejection of their identities from society.

The film was given praise for the filmmakers’ casting of transgender women to take on roles of its transgender characters. Representation in the film industry has been always been a controversial and heated discussion, with audiences condemning filmmaker decisions to cast often white cis-gendered actors and actresses in roles not meant to be played by white actors. The film was also commended for bringing trans issues to the front and center of mainstream media, opening up conversations about the marginalized community.

On this same thought of representation, the major flaw that critics pointed out was that the film was written and directed by a white cis-gendered male. This in itself illustrates the bigger issue of the lack of people of color within the film industry working behind the scenes as a director, producer, or scriptwriter. The opportunities to make it big in this industry for marginalized communities are nearly impossible. But when it comes to Tangerine, I do believe Sean Baker, the director and producer, was extremely aware of his position in relation to the topics being discussed in the film. In an interview, he was transparent about the process of putting this film together and emphasized heavy collaboration with the lead actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor to ensure the film was as accurate as it can be.


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With all these mixed reviews laid out on the table, I believe Tangerine was a powerful movie, both in its demonstration of unconventional cinematography and the conversation it opens up about trans women of color working in the sex industry. It is not a perfect film, as Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor are still placed in the shadow of Sean Baker’s success as a director. There is still so much that needs to be done before the trans community can be seen and heard without the mediation of a white man. But the film is a big step forward in trans women representation on the silver screen.

Emily is a fourth-year at UC Davis, pursuing a bachelor's degree in Communications and Cinema & Digital Media. She is currently Design Director for VITA at UC Davis and Digital Media Director for Her Campus UCD. She enjoys thrifting and getting coffee with friends.
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