2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘XY Chelsea’

May 1, 2019

by Carla Hay

Chelsea Manning in "XY Chelsea"
Chelsea Manning in “XY Chelsea” (Photo by Tim Travers Hawkins)

“XY Chelsea”

Directed by Tim Travers Hawkins

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on May 1, 2019.

Less than a month before the documentary “XY Chelsea” was supposed to have its world premiere at 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, controversial whistleblower Chelsea Manning (who’s the subject of the movie) was arrested on March 8, for refusing to testify before a grand jury about the classified U.S. government documents that she leaked to WikiLeaks in 2010. Before the arrest kept her in jail, Manning had been scheduled to attend the “XY Chelsea” premiere and to do an on-stage Q&A afterward. The filmmakers also had to redo the ending of the movie to include updates about the arrests of Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who was taken into custody on April 11, 2019.

It’s one of many twists and turns to Manning’s saga that this revealing documentary chronicles with an unwavering purpose: to show viewers who she really is and how she has adjusted to life outside of prison. Manning was imprisoned from 2010 to 2017, the year that President Barack Obama commuted her 35-year sentence. At a post-premiere Q&A, Manning’s criminal-defense attorney Nancy Hollander said that Manning’s refusal to testify is a protest against the system.

Back in 2010, when Manning was first arrested for the notorious case, she was Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old U.S. Army soldier and intelligence analyst with access to thousands of classified government documents. After being convicted of violating the Espionage Act and other crimes in 2013, Manning announced that she was going to live her life as a transgender woman named Chelsea Elizabeth Manning. The “XY” in the documentary’s title refers to the chromosomes that determine if a human is male or female; males typically have the XY chromosome, while females usually have the XX chromosome.

Manning has given many interviews and speeches since her release from prison, and she also had a failed 2018 campaign for U.S. Senator to represent her home state of Maryland. But this documentary, which had unprecedented access to Manning, gives viewers a raw and unflinching look at her life behind the scenes.

The movie begins with the news that Manning was pardoned and is set to be released from prison. As a trans woman who was forced to dress like a man in prison, viewers see that Manning has already picked out the type of clothes she wants to wear after her prison release. There’s a phone conversation with Manning instructing her attorney Hollander on the exact pages of fashion magazines where she can find the clothes that Manning wants to wear. Stepping on the plane that will take her to her new home, it’s clear that Manning still can’t quite believe that she is no longer in prison. But Manning isn’t a typical ex-con, and it’s clear she can’t have a “normal” life because of her notoriety. She has to deal with a multitude of issues, including life after prison, life after the military, and life after coming out as a trans woman.

Viewers see that even though she’s no longer in prison, Manning can’t feel completely free because she believes that the government will always be out to get her, now that she’s been declared an enemy of the state. Her paranoia is palpable as she checks for hidden recording devices when she’s in a hotel room. And because Manning has admitted to suicide attempts while she was in prison, there’s an underlying sense that her mental health has varying degrees of fragility.

In the documentary’s interviews, Manning opens up about her unhappy childhood. She says both of her biological parents were heavy drinkers, her father was abusive, and she was hated so much by her stepmother that she was eventually kick out of their home. Manning also said that although her father had a problem with her living as a gay man, it didn’t bother him as much as when she revealed her true identity as a transgender woman.

As for why she joined the military in the first place, Manning said she did it “almost on a whim” because it was her way of trying to escape her trans identity. By joining an establishment that requires strict conformity, Manning said that she was hoping that the military could “cure” her sexual identity, much like “going cold turkey from a drug addiction.”

She is more guarded about what it was like to be a transgender woman in prison. Choosing her words carefully, and often pausing before she speaks, Manning said that she was constantly watched in prison, guards would do things such as walk in on her while she was changing clothes, and people’s reactions to her trans identity were “complicated” and “human.” Manning’s experience in solitary confinement has left emotional scars, since she said that a part of her died when she had to spend so much time in isolation.

While out of prison, the documentary shows Manning becoming very active on social media. In the photo shoot for her first post-prison portrait (which she uses as a social-media profile picture), she jokes that her low-cut blouse might show too much “boobage.” As Manning’s post-prison life evolves into very outspoken activism, particularly against Republicans, she experiences extreme reactions from the public: The people who love her think she’s an American hero, and they treat her almost like a rock star when she’s at political events. There people who hate her think she’s a traitor, and they treat her like a disgusting freak.

Manning’s mantra/political slogan has become “We Got This,” as a way of saying that whatever life throws her way, she can handle it. Her decision to run for U.S. Senate as a first-time political candidate speaks to how high her ambitions are and the groundswell of support that she felt from people. However, there’s a sense of loneliness that permeates Manning’s life—she’s estranged from her family and does not have very many close friends, since she understandably finds it difficult to trust people, and her fame causes a certain isolation. At one point in the documentary, Manning says, “I know I’m not the person that people think I am.”

The documentary also shows what happened behind the scenes during Manning’s Senate campaign and the moment that it all imploded in January 2018. In a misguided attempt at what Manning calls “rapport building,” she went to a right-wing political event called “A Night for Freedom” in New York City, where she was seen hobnobbing with pro-Trump supporters and people who express racist, sexist and homophobic viewpoints. As Manning described it on social media, she “crashed the fascist/white supremacist hate brigade party,” and that she “learned in prison that the best way to confront your enemies is face-to-face in their space.” But she got an immense amount from backlash from left-wing people, many of whom withdrew their support of her. (Manning lost the Senate primary by a landslide.)

In “XY Chelsea,” Manning is seen having a meltdown over the backlash, which she mistakenly thought would blow over in a few days. In a tension-filled scene, Manning shouts to spokesperson Janus Rose and campaign manager/communications director Kelly Wright, “This is driving us into the fucking ground!” Later, Manning fights back tears, as she says that going to the “Night for Freedom” event was “indefensible” and “wrong.” She adds, “I’m not a hero. I’ve just always been someone wanting to do something.”

And in a prophetic scene near the end of the movie, Manning has this to say about why she’s chosen to be a risk-taking activist speaking out against government corruption: “What are they going to do? Throw me in prison? Kill me? They’re going to do that anyway if we let them. I’d rather go down fighting.”

Showtime will premiere “XY Chelsea” on June 7, 2019.