Review: ‘Tick, Tick…Boom!,’ starring Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Joshua Henry, Judith Light and Vanessa Hudgens

November 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Andrew Garfield and Alexandra Shipp in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” (Photo by Macall Polay/Netflix) 

“Tick, Tick…Boom!”

Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in 1990 in New York City, the musical biopic “Tick, Tick…Boom!” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American, Latino and multiracial) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Aspiring playwright/composer Jonathan Larson, who’s frustrated that he hasn’t reached his goals by the age of 30, struggles to complete his first musical, which he hopes will end up on Broadway.

Culture Audience: “Tick, Tick…Boom!” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of movie musicals, Broadway musicals, Lin-Manuel Miranda and star Andrew Garfield.

Robin de Jesús, Mj Rodriguez and Ben Levi Ross in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” (Photo by Macall Polay/Netflix)

It’s very fitting that Pulitzer prize-winning Broadway musical mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) makes his feature-film directorial debut with an emotionally stirring and ambitious musical celebrating another Pulitzer prize-winning Broadway musical mastermind: “Rent” creator Jonathan Larson. In 1996, Larson tragically and unexpectedly died at the age 35 of an aortic dissection. A brief period of Larson’s life (mostly in 1990) is recreated with a winning blend of exuberance and gravitas in the Miranda-directed musical “Tick, Tick…Boom!,” based on Larson’s solo artist show that featured a book and biographical original songs written by Larson. After Larson’s death, “Tick, Tick…Boom!” was reworked as a three-actor show and premiered off-Broadway in 1996. For a while, Miranda portrayed Larson during the off-Broadway stint of “Tick, Tick…Boom!”

In the “Tick, Tick…Boom!” movie role of Larson, Andrew Garfield gives a stunning and heartfelt performance that perfectly captures the highs, lows and everything in between of what it means to be a passionate but struggling artist. Miranda and “Tick, Tick…Boom!” screenwriter Steven Levenson crafted a story that does cinematic justice to the musical genre, with elements that combine gritty drama with whimsical fantasy. This blend mostly works well, although some viewers who are unfamiliar with Larson’s story might be confused by the timeline jumping in the movie. Most other people will simply be enthralled by the journey.

Larson was born in White Plains, New York, on February 4, 1960. In the beginning of the “Tick, Tick…Boom!,” Jonathan is living in New York City and is a few days away from turning 30. And he’s not happy about it. Why?

Jonathan, who writes and performs pop/rock music, hasn’t achieved his goal of writing a musical that’s gone to Broadway. He’s beginning to question if he made the right decision to be a playwriter/composer. He’s so financially broke, he hasn’t been paying his utility bills. And he’s worried that eviction from his apartment might be in his future.

Things aren’t completely bleak for Jonathan. He and his girlfriend Susan (played by Alexandra Shipp) are in love. She is completely supportive of his goals, even if it means Jonathan gets so immersed in these goals that he doesn’t pay enough attention to her. Jonathan is also proud and supportive of Susan’s chosen career. Susan contemplated being a doctor, but she chose instead to have a career in modern dance, and she overcame a setback of fracturing her ankle. She’s been more successful than Jonathan in actually getting paid as a professional artist, although Jonathan is quick to point on in a movie voiceover that Susan doesn’t care about becoming rich and famous.

Jonathan also has three other special people in his life, who are all close friends of his: Michael (played by Robin de Jesús), his opinionated gay best friend from childhood; Carolyn (played by Mj Rodriguez, also known as Michaela Jaé Rodriguez), a sassy co-worker at the Moondance Diner, where she and Jonathan work as servers; and sweet-natured Freddy (played by Ben Levi Ross), who’s also a Moondance Diner server. Michael used to be a struggling actor and Jonathan’s roommate, but he gave up this lifestyle to have a steady income as an advertising agency executive.

Jonathan has been working on a musical called “Superbia,” which he describes as an “original dystopian musical that I’ve been writing and rewriting.” It’s the “rewriting” part that has got Jonathan anxious, because he currently has writer’s block in finishing the musical. Another problem is that Jonathan has a hard time describing the plot of the musical, because he doesn’t quite know where the plot is going.

Jonathan throws a 30th birthday party for himself at his apartment. Michael, who is more financially practical than Jonathan, gently chides Jonathan for spending money on the party when Jonathan hasn’t been paying his bills. Jonathan and Susan still have romantic sparks between them, but something has shifted in their relationship: Jonathan turning 30 has given him a new restlessness and insecurity about his career goals, while Susan wants a sign that Jonathan is ready to make a more solid commitment to her.

Susan and Jonathan don’t live together, and they’re not in a rush to get married. However, Susan wants to eventually live with Jonathan, who doesn’t really want to commit to a “yes” or “no” answer in contemplating taking their relationship to the “live-in partner” level. Jonathan and Susan’s relationship is tested in a big way when Susan gets a job offer to be a dancer and dance instructor in the Berkshires, a rural part of Massachusetts.

The news about this job offer comes around the same time that Jonathan gets a big opportunity for his musical theater dreams: He’s been asked to present “Superbia” as a workshop at Playwright Horizons. The director of Playwright Horizons is Ira Weitzman (played by Jonathan Marc Sherman), an experienced, middle-aged theater benefactor who is encouraging to Jonathan but is skeptical that Jonathan can be focused enough to finish “Superbia.”

Invitations have gone out for the “Superbia” workshop, but few people have responded so far. Still, Jonathan is under immense pressure to finish his musical by the deadline. He’s too embarrassed to tell Ira the biggest problem: He hasn’t written a single song for the musical yet.

“Tick, Tick…Boom!” has two parallel countdowns: (1) The more explicitly stated countdown to Jonathan finishing his “Superbia” musical on time, and (2) Jonathan’s own internal and implicit countdown to write a musical that ends up on Broadway before he thinks he’s too old. The title of “Tick, Tick…Boom!” comes from Jonathan’s description of how he feels like his life is a ticking time bomb where his dreams will explode into disappointment if he doesn’t reach his career goals by the deadlines that he sets for himself.

During these intense scenes of Jonathan rushing to finish “Superbia” on time, he encounters some other problems: Susan is pressuring Jonathan to set aside time to talk with her about the decision she’ll make on whether or not she’ll take the dance job in the Berkshires. He avoids Susan because he wants to work on “Superbia.” Jonathan, who uses a computer for writing the musical’s book, experiences a major setback when his electricity is suddenly turned off the night before the workshop, and he still hasn’t finished the musical.

Jonathan’s fast-talking agent Rosa Stevens (played by Judith Light) does the best she can to get him work, but she’s blunt in telling him that it’s difficult when he hasn’t had any work produced on Broadway. At this point in time, Jonathan’s best shot of getting investors for “Superbia” is through this upcoming workshop, which could lead to “Superbia” going to Broadway, if everything goes according to Jonathan’s plan. As far as he’s concerned, this workshop for “Superbia” is a “make it or break it” moment in his career.

But now for the moments in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” that might turn off or confuse some viewers: This entire tension-filled story telling what happened to Jonathan and his race to finish “Superbia” on time is told within a flashback context where Jonathan is describing this part of his life in a solo-artist rock concert musical called “Tick, Tick…Boom!” During this concert, he sings and narrates the story (often while playing piano), while he’s backed up by a band and two other singers who sing lead vocals the songs: Karessa (played by Vanessa Hudgens) and Roger (played by Joshua Henry).

In real life, Larson began performing “Tick, Tick…Boom!” (originally titled “Boho Days”) in an off-Broadway show, beginning in 1990, just a few years before completing “Rent.” “Tick, Tick…Boom!” essentially keeps the same premise as the stage version, except that Larson’s flashback storytelling is acted out in scenes on screen. What happened to “Superbia”? That’s revealed in “Tick, Tick…Boom!,” which has plenty of vibrant musical numbers, although some of the narrative aspects of the screenplay are a little clunky.

For example, there’s a scene in the movie where Jonathan, while performing his “Tick, Tick…Boom!” show on stage, has a flashback to several years earlier, when he met legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim (played by Bradley Whitford) at a musical theater workshop. At the time, Jonathan was presenting an unnamed project that ultimately never made it to Broadway and possibly never even got produced.

Jonathan describes this workshop for aspiring playwrights and composers as having a rotating number of guest panelists who evaluate each musical presented. The panelists are usually professional Broadway writers. Stephen was one of the two panelists evaluating Jonathan’s musical. It’s an amusing scene where Stephen and a fictional character named Walter Bloom (played by Richard Kind) is the other panelist.

After Jonathan presents songs from his musical, Walter immediately gives an insulting rant, including saying that the musical has no identity. Walter also says that the musical style doesn’t know if it wants to be more like rock music or more like Broadway show tune music. Meanwhile, Stephen (who’s the most famous person in the room) gives a positive review: He says the musical knows exactly what it is, but the songs need more work. Walter, who is clearly intimidated by Stephen’s clout, quickly changes his mind and agrees with everything that Stephen says.

At one point, Stephen praises one of the songs as having “first-rate lyric and tune.” In a voiceover, Jonathan says, with awe still in his voice, that those words from one of his theater idols gave Jonathan the type of encouragement that he carried for years. As part of this flashback, Jonathan and Stephen are then shown having a one-on-one evaluation session, where Stephen gives Jonathan some more helpful advice.

This flashback scene, although very well-acted, is one of the drawbacks to the movie’s back-and-forth timeline structure. If viewers aren’t paying attention, they can mistake the scene of Jonathan meeting Stephen for the first time as something that took place in or close to 1990, not years earlier, as Jonathan quickly mentions in describing this flashback.

At any rate, even though Jonathan and Stephen have not been in contact for years, Stephen is one of the people whom Jonathan invites (by leaving a message with Stephen’s manager) to Jonathan’s “Superbia” workshop. There’s a scene where Jonathan somewhat desperately calls several people in an attempt to boost attendance at his workshop just a few days before it takes place.

Most of the criticism that “Tick, Tick…Boom!” might get is how it packs in a lot of issues within what’s supposed to be a very short timeline. There’s a point in the movie where Jonathan literally has less than 12 hours before the workshop and he still hasn’t written most of the “Suburbia” songs and he’s still struggling with the book for the musical. Whether someone is familiar with musical theater or not, the movie still has a timeline that’s kind of messy.

For example, it’s not adequately explained how Jonathan could be doing such a last-minute scramble to finish the musical’s songs the night before the workshop rehearsals. Certain scenes muddle the timeline on how much he needs to get done before the actual workshop. Certain parts of the movie go to great lengths to repeat that Jonathan hasn’t finished any songs for “Superbia” yet. And then, he talks about the one last song he really needs to finish is a pivotal song for the musical’s second act. But these deadline worries aren’t really shown in chronological order.

That’s why the workshop rehearsal scenes seem a little off-kilter. These brief rehearsals are hastily explained in the movie by having Jonathan showing up with sheet music for songs that might or might not be half-finished. Everyone in the group is expected to magically start playing and singing, as if they can easily learn this music and act like within minutes, they already know this music by heart. It’s a big leap and stretch of the imagination for the movie’s audience to take.

Instead of showing how he crafted these songs, the movie goes on a path of subplots and other tangents. You still won’t really know what “Superbia” is about by the end of the movie. If Jonathan doesn’t care enough about “Superbia” for it to be ready for the workshop, why should this movie’s viewers care? And maybe that’s the point, because the subplots are context to what ended up inspiring “Rent,” the real-life Larson’s best-known work.

One of the biggest themes in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is the decisions that aspiring artists have to make between pursuing their artistic passion when it pays little or nothing, or giving it up to work full-time at a job that pays a steady income. Many artists who haven’t “made it” find a way to compromise, by having a day job to pay the bills and pursuing their artistic passion in their free time.

Jonathan is in that “in-between” zone, but he wonders out loud how much of a loser he might be if he keeps being a restaurant server well into his 30s. He likes his co-workers, but he knows the job doesn’t pay enough to get him out of his financial hole. However, working at the Moondance Diner is one of the few jobs he can get with the flexibility of work hours that can give him the time to work on his musicals.

Michael has already made his own decision on how he’s going to make living, and he’s at peace with giving up acting, because he considered himself to be a mediocre actor. Michael makes enough money at his ad agency job to move into an upscale apartment building and buy a BMW. Jonathan thinks Michael is being a sellout, because he thinks Michael gave up his real passion: being an actor.

Meanwhile, Michael thinks Jonathan should not give up his passion to be a musical theater writer because Michael thinks that Jonathan has extraordinary talent that should not be squandered. However, Michael thinks Jonathan needs to stop having a self-righteous attitude about being a starving artist and find a way to make more money so that Jonathan can be more financially responsible in paying basic bills. Jonathan and Michael have an argument about it, because in their own separate ways, Michael and Jonathan feel like the other one is being somewhat of a hypocrite in their career decisions.

In the “race against time” aspect of the “Superbia” workshop, Jonathan finds out that Ira won’t pay for the number of band musicians that Jonathan says he needs for the “Superbia” workshop. And so, there are scenes where Jonathan has to rush to find a way to come up with the money. As a last resort, he accepts Michael’s offer to be part of a paid focus group for the ad agency.

Jonathan’s participation in the focus group is one of the movie’s funnier scenes. He’s only in this focus group for the money. Jonathan has a deeply cynical attitude toward ad agencies, which he thinks are in the business of lying to “sell shit to people that they don’t need.” Laura Benanti portrays Judy, the ad agency’s slightly uptight leader of the focus group. Utkarsh Ambudkar has a comedic cameo as Todd, one of the gullible focus group participants. (In real life, Ambudkar and Miranda are two of the members of the performance group Freestyle Love Supreme.)

There are other issues in Jonathan’s life. He’s terrified of being considered a failure. Jonathan’s parents Nan (played by Judy Kuhn) and Al (played by Danny Burstein), who appear briefly in the movie, are emotionally supportive and not far from his mind, because he doesn’t want to be a disappointment to them. (In real life, Larson had a sister named Julie, but she’s not mentioned in the movie.) And then, certain people in the story have a health crisis that deeply affects many people.

It’s a lot to pack in a movie that’s a musical within a musical. Despite having a timeline that could’ve been been presented better, “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is able to rise above its flaws, thanks to stellar performances from the cast members. Garfield is the obvious standout. He’s able to convey genuine emotions without falling into the musical actor trap of over-emoting.

Shipp, Hudgens and de Jesus also have moments where they shine in the film. “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is not one of those musicals where only the musical numbers are the highlights. There are plenty of spoken-word-only dramatic moments that are among the best in the movie, particularly those that involve the friendship between Jonathan and Michael. As Jonathan’s jaded agent Rosa Stevens, Light plays her role for laughs, and it comes very close to being a parody of real-life agents.

And because “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” creator Miranda is considered Broadway royalty, it’s no surprise that several Broadway stars signed up for cameos in Miranda’s feature-film directorial debut. The most memorable, star-studded scene in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is for the tune “Sunday,” which takes place at the Moondance Diner. It’s a fantasy sequence where Jonathan lifts up his hands, the front of the diner’s walls fall away, and the diner’s customers join in song.

And what a bunch of customers they are. It’s like a who’s who of Broadway: Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Joel Grey, Phylicia Rashad, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Bebe Neuwirth, André Robin De Shields, Beth Malone and Howard McGillin. Also in this scene are “Hamilton” co-stars Renée Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo, as well as original “Rent” Broadway co-stars Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Wilson Jermaine Heredia. Miranda has a cameo in this scene as a Moondance Diner cook.

An early highlight of the film is “No More,” performed by Garfield and de Jesús in an energetic song-and-dance duet about Jonathan and Michael expressing how they don’t want to be struggling artists anymore. Another standout is a cast rendition of “Boho Days,” performed at Jonathan’s birthday party and with Garfield on lead vocals. Shipp and Hudgens have their best moment in “Come to Your Senses” a powerful timeline-jumping duet that shows the characters of Susan and Karessa trading off lines of the song. And de Jesús will probably bring some viewers to tears with Michael’s heartbreaking performance of “Real Life.”

Other songs written or co-written by Larson that make it into the movie include “30/90,” “Out of My Dreams,” “Green Green Dress,” “Sugar,” “LCD Readout,” “Swimming,” Johnny Can’t Decide,” “Sextet,” “Therapy,” “Ever After,” “Debtor Club,” “Why,” “Come to Your Senses,” “Louder Than Words” and “Only Takes a Few.” “Play Game” is presented in the style of 1990s-styled rap video clip, with real-life rapper Tariq Trotter as the fictional rapper H.A.W.K. Smooth. The screenplay could have benefited from an improved structuring of its narrative, but the movie’s songs, performances and direction combine to create an enjoyable experience where the movie’s two-hour running time seems to fly by effortlessly.

Netflix released “Tick, Tick…Boom!” in select U.S. cinemas on November 12, 2021. The move premiered on Netflix on November 19, 2021.

Review: ‘Disclosure,’ starring Laverne Cox, Chaz Bono, Lilly Wachowski, Jen Richards, Yance Ford, Candis Cayne and Mj Rodriguez

June 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Laverne Cox in “Disclosure” (Photo by Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix)

“Disclosure” (2020) 

Directed by Sam Feder

Culture Representation: The documentary “Disclosure” has a racially diverse group of entertainers and activists (white, black, Asian and Latino) discussing how transgender people are depicted in movies and television.

Culture Clash: The documentary examines damaging bigotry that leads to confusion, hatred and untrue or misleading stereotyping of transgender people.

Culture Audience: “Disclosure” will appeal mainly to people who care about the rights of transgender people, but the documentary is also worth viewing for people who need to be more educated on why movies and television have a major impact in how transgender people are treated by society.

Chaz Bono in “Disclosure” (Photo by Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix)

When the documentary “Disclosure” (directed by Sam Feder) premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, it was subtitled “Trans Lives on Screen.” That subtitle was removed when the film made its way to Netflix. And it’s too bad the movie no longer has this subtitle, since this description needed to be displayed loud and proud to announce the documentary’s subject matter. By stripping the documentary of its original subtitle, “Disclosure” just sounds like a generically vague movie, based on the title.

Title changes are usually made by the movie’s distributor for marketing reasons, in order to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. Perhaps whoever decided on this title change thought that having the word “trans” in any part of the documentary’s title would scare off potential viewers. If that was the main reason for dropping the subtitle “Trans Lives on Screen,” then it’s an ironic choice, since the entire movie is about de-stigmatizing and de-mystifying what it means to be a transgender person, as it relates to how trans people are portrayed in movies and on television.

“Disclosure” does a very good job overall of covering these issues by giving the entire narrative to trans people. Everyone interviewed in the documentary is a transgender entertainer and/or trans activist. (“Disclosure” director Feder is also transgender.) People interviewed in the movie include Laverne Cox, Angelica Ross, Brian Michael Smith, Yance Ford, Zeke Smith, Lilly Wachowski, Mj Rodriguez, Michael D. Cohen, Chaz Bono, Jamie Clayton, Alexandra Billings, Jen Richards, Tiq Milan, Nick Adams, Tre’Vell Anderson, Trace Lysette, Rain Valdez, Zackary Drucker, Marquis Vilson, Chase Strangio, Sandra Caldwell, Candis Cayne, Susan Stryker, Alexandra Grey, Jazzmun, Ser Anzoategui, Elliot Fletcher, Bianca Leigh, Leo Sheng, Mickey R. Mahoney and Hailie Sahar.

However, the documentary (which has a traditional format that blends interviews with archival footage) doesn’t do an adequate job of explaining variances along the gender spectrum. There are many people in society who get confused between being transgender and doing drag. It’s a confusion that the documentary further muddles by bringing up examples of drag impersonations in movies and television and putting them in the same category as transgender representation. Some of the documentary’s examples include Dustin Hoffman in 1982’s “Tootsie” and Robin Williams in 1993’s “Mrs. Doubtfire,” as well as female personas created by male comedians Milton Berle, Flip Wilson and Jamie Foxx on comedy TV series.

Here is what “Disclosure” should have done from the beginning before going into the flashy montages of film and TV clips: Educate people on the different identities in the gender spectrum.

The documentary assumes that people watching the film already know what “cisgender” means. The definition of “cisgender” is when someone identifies as the biological gender assigned at birth. The majority of people in the world are cisgender and use the pronouns “he/him” if they identify as male and “she/her” if they identify as female. Most cisgender people are heterosexual (attracted to the opposite sex), while other cisgender people identify as “queer” (attracted to the same sex, both sexes or any gender) or “asexual” (not interested in any sex at all). It depends on the individual.

Transgender people are people who identify as the opposite of their biological gender they were assigned at birth. Transgender people have their own unique journeys on how and when they decide to present themselves as the gender they are. Many transgender people, for various reasons (usually pressures from society or family members), are forced to present themselves as the gender that is opposite of who they are.

Transgender people all over the world are fighting for the rights to be gendered correctly and to openly live their lives as the gender with which they identify, without being discriminated against for it. A transgender woman should have the pronouns “she/her” and a transgender man should have the pronouns “he/him.” Just like with cisgender people, sexuality for transgender people depends on an individual: Transgender people can be sexually attracted to any, all or no people on the gender spectrum.

Transgender people are often misidentified as doing drag. And that is a common misconception that the documentary really should have pointed out better. Drag is dressing up as the opposite sex. For transgender people, their gender identity isn’t “doing drag,” like a costume someone can put on and take off when they choose. The documentary really missed an opportunity to clarify between “doing drag” and “being transgender.”

Likewise, people can get confused over what “trans” means when there are transsexuals and transvestites. Transsexuals are transgender people who undergo gender confirmation surgery. Transvestites are cisgender people who dress up as the opposite sex. Transvestites are a subculture of drag culture, because transvestites are usually people who identify as straight or bisexual. None of that is explained in the documentary.

Also not mentioned in the documentary: There are some people who identify as “gender-fluid” and present themselves as male and female, depending on the situation. When gender-fluid people present as male, they want their pronouns to be “he/him,” and when they present as female, they want their pronouns to be “she/her.” Gender-fluid people are not to be confused with nonbinary people, who don’t identify as any gender and use the pronouns “they” and “them.”

Maybe the “Disclosure” filmmakers thought all of this information would be confusing to viewers. But a lot of people in the world don’t know that there is a gender difference between RuPaul (a cisgender gay man who does drag as a woman) and Laverne Cox (a transgender woman). A movie like “Disclosure” could have done a better job of educating people who are ignorant of these differences, instead of assuming that everyone who watches the film already knows what the differences are.

That being said, “Disclosure” has an impressive compilation of film/TV clips and personal stories from transgender entertainers who talk about how images on screen influenced (for better or worse) how they felt about themselves as transgender people. “Disclosure” also responsibly acknowledges the additional prejudice that transgender people can face from other members of the LGBTQ community.

There are also disproportionate levels of racism and sexism that transgender women of color experience, compared to cisgender queer white people. (Most hate crimes against transgender people are crimes against transgender women of color.) And because white transgender people get more representation on screen than transgender people of color, it causes limited stereotyping that can stifle the careers of transgender people of color. Actress/producer Valdez (who is of Filipino heritage and was raised in Guam) says in the documentary she’s spent her entire career trying to convince people that she can do roles other than the Asian “M. Butterfly” stereotype.

“Disclosure” offers a fairly comprehensive historical account of how transgender lives have been depicted in movies and television. The documentary includes examples of movies all the way back to the silent-film era. Two silent films released in 1914 are singled out in particular: director D.W. Griffith’s “Judith of Bethulia” and director Sidney Drew’s “A Florida Enchantment.”

But this is where “doing drag” and “being transgender” can get confused, since both films don’t really specify if the characters are really transgender or if the characters are cisgender people doing drag. For the first half of 20th century, the terminology just didn’t exist to make the distinction between the two types of identities.

Adding to the confusion is that many films from the silent-film era had shameful and degrading portrayals of women and people of color, with white men acting in those roles because white men were the ones usually allowed to get those roles in the first place. The practice of male actors dressing up as women goes back centuries before film was even invented, when women were not allowed to be actors.

Movies allowed roles for women, but early silent films still had a lot of men portraying women, simply because there weren’t enough women who were allowed to be actors. That doesn’t necessarily mean those characters were written as transgender or queer. It’s something that “Disclosure” should have put into better historical context.

However, actress/activist Cox (who is one of the executive producers of “Disclosure”) makes this noteworthy comment: “I think it’s fascinating that some of the earliest moving images were cross-dressed images. When you watch, it feels very much like womanhood is silly and is to be mocked.”

Oscar-nominated “Strong Island” director Ford says that he’s not surprised that movies from early filmmakers such as Griffith presented anyone who wasn’t a straight white male in a demeaning manner. Ford comments that he’s glad he didn’t go to film school because he would have walked out if they showed him Griffith’s pro-Ku Klux Klan film “Birth of a Nation,” which is often taught in films schools as one of the most influential movies of the silent-film era. “The Matrix” filmmaker Lilly Wachowski puts it bluntly when she says of Griffith: “You racist piece of shit.”

Transgender representation in films obviously became more pronounced in the latter half of the 20th century, when transgender identities and gender confirmation surgeries became more openly discussed in society. Some of the films mentioned as being influential for transgender representation include 1992’s “The Crying Game,” 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” 2013’s “Dallas Buyers Club” and 2015’s “The Danish Girl,” which were all nominees or winners of Academy Awards. For documentary films, 1990’s “Paris Is Burning” is praised as one of the most influential of all time for transgender representation.

However, even some of those films had problematic issues, according to some of the “Disclosure” interviewees. “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Danish Girl” all had cisgender actors portraying transgender people. Transgender activists have been advocating for filmmakers and TV showrunners to hire transgender people for transgender roles. “Dallas Buyers Club” (which was based on a true story) also got some criticism in “Disclosure” because some people think that Jared Leto’s fictional Rayon character (a transgender female) was written for the movie to make the straight male protagonist of the story, Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), look like the “heterosexual savior.”

In the “The Crying Game,” when transgender female character Dil (played by Jaye Davidson, who is transgender in real life) revealed that she has a penis, it caused her straight male love interest Fergus (played by Stephen Rea) to vomit. “Disclosure” criticizes films that resort to this negative and often unrealistic vomiting reaction whenever a cisgender person finds out that someone is transgender. The 1994 comedy “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” starring Jim Carrey, is cited as an example of this derogatory stereotyping.

The 1975 bank robbery film “Dog Day Afternoon,” starring Al Pacino, is mentioned as a mixed bag for transgender representation. This dramatic movie is based on a true story of a man who held a bank hostage in New York City so that he could get the money to pay for gender confirmation surgery for his transgender female lover. The documentary points out that in real life, the transgender lover definitely presented herself as a woman in the way she looked, acted and dressed. But in the movie, the transgender lover was played by a very cisgender male-looking Chris Sarandon, who wasn’t even dressed as a woman in the movie.

Many people in “Disclosure” point to the Buffalo Bill character from the 1991 Oscar-winning film “The Silence of the Lambs” as an even more distasteful and offensive representation of a transgender person. The Buffalo Bill character is named as the embodiment of the worst negative stereotypes that movies have in portraying transgender women as homicidal people who act as vultures to femininity and hate cisgender women. It’s part of a shameful legacy of many transgender people being written in movies and TV shows as either criminals or tragic figures with medical problems. It’s also why so many transgender characters end up dying in these movies and TV shows.

But once again, “Disclosure” confuses “transgender” with “drag” when it goes off on a tangent to have people discuss movies like 1982’s “Victoria/Victoria,” 1983’s “Yentl” and  1985’s “Just One of the Guys”— each film had the main character doing drag, not being transgender. Although it’s interesting that some of the interviewees in this documentary were influenced by these films, the cross-dressing characters in those movies were cisgender, not transgender. As the saying goes about not causing confusion: “Don’t get it twisted.”

Many of the interviewees say that the TV industry has been more progressive than the movie industry, when it comes to representing transgender people, but there is still room for improvement. Christine Jorgensen (the first widely known transgender American woman to have a gender confirmation operation) is considered a pioneer for transgender representation in the U.S. media, since her transgender journey was a big story in TV news in the 1950s, and she was a frequent guest on TV talk shows and news programs for years afterward.

And the LGBTQ activism of transgender women Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson that began in the 1960s—although not as frequently covered on TV as the activism of their white cisgender male counterparts—is mentioned as highly important and underrated. Some of the interviewees in “Disclosure” say that bigotry within the LGBTQ community has a lot to do with why transgender activists are often held back and overlooked in their own community.

The Emmy-winning FX drama series “Pose” (about New York City’s drag/trans ballroom culture in the late ’80s/early ’90s) is cited by many people as the gold standard of all transgender TV shows, in terms of accurate representation. But “Pose” (which debuted in 2018) is an anomaly, since it’s the first and so far only scripted TV series to have a transgender-majority cast. “Pose” co-star Rodriguez says that the show has had a tremendous positive impact in how people view the transgender community.

Janet Mock, who is a “Pose” writer/director, is not interviewed in “Disclosure,” but she’s mentioned as an important trailblazer for transgender people who work behind the scenes in television. In 2019, Mock signed an exclusive first-look deal with Netflix to be the showrunner of TV programs, becoming the first transgender person to get this type of TV deal. “Disclosure” includes some archival clips of TV interviews that Mock has done.

Other TV shows that are mentioned as having positive representations of transgender people are Netflix’s 2013-2019 dramedy series “Orange Is the New Black” (which had Cox as one of its cast members); Amazon Prime Video’s 2014-2019 comedy series “Transparent”;  and the TLC reality show “I Am Jazz,” starring transgender female Jazz Jennings, who was 14 when the show premiered in 2015.

ABC’s 2007-2009 primetime TV soap opera “Dirty Sexy Money” had Cayne as the first openly transgender character in a U.S. primetime TV series, but she says that this milestone was marred when the decision was made to lower her voice octave in the show’s audio, to make her sound more “masculine.” Cayne says she was horrified when she saw the show’s premiere and found out that her voice was changed without her permission.

The documentary also points out that writers and producers are capable of evolving and improving representation of transgender people. “Pose” co-creator Ryan Murphy (an openly gay man) was also a showrunner of FX’s 2003-2009 drama series “Nip/Tuck,” which had a disturbing episode in 2004 that featured lead character Christian Troy (played by Julian McMahon) raping a transgender woman named Ava Moore (played by cisgender actress Famke Janssen) and finding out during the sexual assault that Ava is a post-operational transgender woman. In “Disclosure,” Cox gets emotional and teary-eyed when she remembers what it felt like to watch that “Nip/Tuck” rape episode.

The reason why Ava got the operation is also problematic: She previously lived life as a gay man, but got the operation to become a woman so that she could to try to get the love of a heterosexual man who wasn’t in love with her. It’s unlikely that Murphy would put that type of transgender storyline in any of his shows today.

“Disclosure” briefly mentions Caitlyn Jenner’s reality show “I Am Cait” and her coming-out journey on the reality show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” But the documentary also mentions that within the transgender community, Jenner is a controversial figure because she is an outspoken conservative Republican who supports political candidates who are against civil rights for the LGBTQ community.

TV talk shows are mentioned as being very important in showing transgender people on television. A transgender man named Reno, who was a guest on “The Jerry Springer Show” in 1998, is named as someone who was influential in particular to black transgender men, according to actor Vilson. “To see this image [of a black transgender man] on TV was really empowering,” Vilson says. “The Jerry Springer Show” was notorious for people revealing controversial “secrets” to their lovers, in the hopes of causing a fight on TV. On the show, Reno revealed to his girlfriend at the time that his true identity is being a transgender man.

Speaking of controversy, “Disclosure” seems to want distance itself from scandal-ridden actors who portrayed transgender people on screen. “Disclosure” doesn’t mention any of the sexual harassment allegations against award-winning “Transparent” star Jeffrey Tambor (a cisgender man who played a transgender woman on the show), who was accused of sexually harassing women who worked on the show. Tambor denied the allegations but left the show in 2017.

Transgender actress Lysette (one of Tambor’s accusers, who guest-starred on the show) and “Transparent” co-star Billings (who is also transgender) are interviewed in the documentary but don’t mention the allegations. Either they talked about the scandal and it was cut out from the film or they didn’t talk about it all all. We might never know.

Also not mentioned at all in the documentary: the 2005 dramatic feature film “Transamerica,” starring Felicity Huffman as a transgender woman. Huffman (a cisgender actress) got an Oscar nomination for her role in “Transamerica,” but the “Disclosure” filmmakers probably don’t want people to be reminded that Huffman is part of transgender film history, because Huffman became a convicted felon in 2019, after she pleaded guilty in the college admissions scandal.

And speaking of transgender women on screen, “Disclosure” also mentions that there is disproportionately more representation of transgender women in American movies and TV than there are of transgender men, even though the number of transgender women and transgender men in the United States are about the same. Unfortunately, most of these transgender female roles in movies and TV are portraying sex workers, murder victims, sexual-assault victims or people going through some kind of medical drama. Transgender actor Smith has this theory: “I think we don’t see as much representation of trans men as trans women because people don’t think of trans men as sensational.”

The documentary points out that people’s attitudes toward trans people have a lot to do with traditional stereotyping of masculinity and femininity. Anything that challenges those stereotypes is often laughed at or despised. In 2011, transgender man Bono (whose famous mother is Cher) was the first transgender contestant on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” In “Disclosure,” he talks about how most people were accepting of him on the show, but there was still considerable backlash that he experienced from bigots.

Showtime’s 2004-2009 drama series “The L Word” was the first American primetime TV series to have a transgender male character as part of the show’s cast. The character Max Sweeney (played by nonbinary actor Daniela Sea) started out as a “butch” lesbian but then transitioned to living life as a transgender man. Max’s coming-out journey on the show highlighted the prejudices that cisgender people (straight and queer) can have toward transgender people, as Max found that some of his lesbian friends had a hard time accepting his identity as a transgender man.

Some people in “Disclosure” say that the lesbian team of writers and producers of “The L Word” did a disservice to the transgender community because the Max character was portrayed as confused, and the female characters’ bigotry against Max was acceptable. Transgender people say that if a transgender writer or producer had been part of the show at the time, Max would probably have been written as transgender from the start, since most transgender people are not confused about their identity but are often forced to hide it because of pressures from society.

“Disclosure” also mentions how gender roles and race can intersect when it comes to black men in comedy. Cox points out that many black male comedians dress up as women to emasculate themselves in a society that often demonizes the masculinity of black men. “Putting a black man in a dress, in some people’s minds, takes away the threat,” says Cox.

Although Cox says that the Geraldine character from “The Flip Wilson Show” had a big impact on her, as one of the first cross-dressing characters that she saw on TV, it’s an example of confusing “doing drag” with “being transgender.” A better example of an influential black transgender TV character mentioned by Cox is the Edie Stokes character on CBS’s 1975-1985 comedy series “The Jeffersons,” played by Veronica Redd (a cisgender actress) in a guest-starring role in 1978. Edie was a character who actually lived life as a transgender woman instead of just playing dress-up.

“Disclosure” also points out that transgender people are often at risk of being ridiculed in being represented on screen. Actress/writer Leigh says, “As a trans person, you have the most sensitive radar to tell if you’re laughing with us or laughing at us.” Media maker/writer Milan adds, “If I’m not laughing, is it a joke?”

Actress/writer Richards (who is known for her roles on the TV series “Better Things” and “Mrs. Fletcher”) says: “There is a one-word solution to almost all problems in trans media—’more.’ We just need more [representation].” But as many people point out in “Disclosure,” more representation should also mean better representation. And that should also include educating people better about what it means to be transgender, so that being transgender is not easily confused with people dressing up in drag.

Netflix premiered “Disclosure” on June 19, 2020.

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