Documentary Review: “Disclosure” charts the evolution of trans representation on film and TV

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For me, a key moment in “Disclosure” TRans Lives On Screen,” the new Netflix documentary about transgender progress and trans representations in film and media, comes when trans actor Brian Michael Smith breaks down the woman-pretending-to-be-a-man-pretending-to-be-a-woman business that drives the blockbuster 1982 comedy “Victor/Victoria.”

“It’s really a ‘women’s empowerment’ message packaged in a trans masculine experience,” Smith complains, “which is soooo invalidating!”

If you don’t like buzzwords or self-“actualization” jargon, “Disclosure” is going to be a hard pill to swallow. It’s a film awash in actresses, activists, models and historians (overwhelmingly trans female), almost all of them using this new nomenclature that the public at large is struggling to catch up with.

Or in the case of the German researcher who invented the clumsy, beaten-to-death  “cisgender” (a person aligned with the gender he or she was born with) back in 1998, maybe “catch up” isn’t accurate. It sounds like a slur, and Volkmar Sigusch should have that explained to him.

But get past the jargon and you realize what you’re watching is one of those landmarks in queer cinema, a “Celluloid Closet” for the transgender community.

Filmmaker Sam Feder (“Boy I Am”) serves up a thorough, lively and enlightening history of transgender representations on film and TV. Through the scores of people interviewed here, we learn how Hollywood perpetuated ugly, hurtful and inaccurate stereotypes for over a century. And if you don’t think Alfred Hitchcock’s overt transphobia could leave scars and “Silence of the Lambs” could convince the relatives and close friends of transgender people that “transitioning” meant they’d be “the bad guy,” a “sick psychopathic serial killer,” here are successful and famous people like Laverne Cox (“Orange is the New Black”) to change your mind.

“Soooo, what’s going on, Alfred?” she purrs, and she’s not just talking about “Psycho,” either.

Hollywood, we’re told, “has taught us how to react to trans people.” In movies predating “The Crying Game” and running well past “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” that reaction — at the “reveal” — is revulsion. A few dozen scenes of shocked men vomiting at realizing they’re attracted to a trans woman ends that argument in a flash.

Positive representations of real-life stories (“Boys Don’t Cry”) are dissected for their “problematic” elements. The violent end facing the hero is bad enough. But even fans of the film might not realize that the filmmakers erased a black man — also murdered in the real-life hate crime — from the story.

But it’s touching to hear Chaz Bono talk about “faking my own death” so that he could transition out of the public eye, and not as the daughter of Sonny & Cher. Even he has to marvel at how quickly the culture was shifting its attitudes towards the tiny minority (.6 percent of the population) he’s in. “Dancing with the Stars” is both representative of that change, and a part of why it happened.

From early drag to Milton Berle and Flip Wilson, “Dressed to Kill” to “Transamerica,” “Disclosure” gives historic representations summoned up by media scholars and the horrified or warm memories of the scores of trans actresses and occasional actor, filmmaker or critic the same weight. Billy Crystal’s transitioning character on “Soap” is important, but so was a single trans woman on a single episode of “The Jeffersons” to a confused black child growing up in the ’70s.

“Disclosure” bites off a bit more than it can chew, wandering off course here and there — a pointless sidebar on racist director D.W. Griffith, an overdose of clips of clumsy, offensive talk show host or hostess questions showing the obsession with non-trans people with “the cutting” (surgery), the barest mention of transgender rejection by the gay community (men, mostly) for decades.

The many digressions about “progress” in society and not just in media suggest  another film. This one more than does justice to “representations.” But as it dodges non-trans interview subjects in general and psychologists in particular in discussing the exaggerated affectations of the community, the institutionalized narcissism of “ballroom” and its accoutrements, we get a hint that there’s a lot more ground to cover.

Still, if you aren’t moved by “Matrix” co-director Lilly Waschowski, and others, singing the praises of the first “positive representation” of a transgender character many of them recall, you should be.

Like “The Matrix” movies, it was a Warner Brothers production. It came out in 1957, and was repeated on TV for decades, during the formative years of almost everybody who appears in “Disclosure.”

Yes, Bugs Bunny in convincing, “powerful, seductive” drag in “What’s Opera, Doc?” was the first clue many a transgender person had that maybe, they weren’t alone, that they deserved respect and that they, too, could find their Siegfried — or Elmer Fudd — and have a “happy ending.”

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MPAA Rating: TV-MA, nudity, sexuality, adult subject matter

Cast: Laverne Cox, Rain Valdez, Alexandra Billings, Chaz Bono, Brian Michael Smith, Candis Cayne, Sandra Caldwell and Lilly Wachowski.

Credits: Directed by Sam Feder. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:40

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