A Fantastic Woman [Una mujer fantástica] (2017)

a-fantastic-woman-poster

Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

For the first few minutes of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica),” life seems to be pretty sweet for its transgender heroine, Marina.

An aspiring singer who earns her living working as a waitress, she is involved with Orlando, a successful older businessman.  They adore each other and are deeply committed to building a future together.

This blissful existence is turned upside down in an instant when Orlando dies from a sudden aneurysm.  Instead of being treated with compassion, Marina is mistrusted by hospital staff, suspected of wrongdoing by legal authorities investigating the death, and viewed as an embarrassment and an interloper by Orlando’s family – who consider her an “aberration” and immediately begin pressuring her to move out of the apartment she shared with him.

It’s a stark reality with which Lelio’s film confronts us.  The notion of unexpectedly losing a partner is dreadful enough, in itself; but to be faced with hostility and prejudice in the wake of such tragedy, to be denied the right to grieve the loss – even actively prevented from doing so – is a nightmare most of us are loath to imagine.

Yet such is the insult-to-injury treatment which often awaits survivors within “alternative” partnerships – especially when those survivors are trans – in even the most civilized cultures.  Marina, in her struggle to find closure amidst the transphobic whirlwind that surrounds her following her lover’s death, serves as a stand-in for countless unsung individuals who daily suffer similar indignities.

She’s worthy of bearing that responsibility.

As a character, Marina is both relatable and admirable.  Throughout her ordeal, she maintains her dignity and poise; even when faced with the extreme bigotry of Orlando’s relatives, she manages to remain courteous while still standing firm – putting to shame their boorish and disrespectful treatment of her.  Wrestling to hold on to her sense of self-worth, she responds to a system rigged in favor of hetero-normal identity not by devolving into a spiral of self-pity and self-destructive but by finding solace in the things that reinforce her sense of self-worth, such as the love of her sister and her passion for singing.

She does falter, of course; after a particularly humiliating – and harrowing – encounter with a group of loutish bullies, she resorts to the numbing oblivion of anonymous sex in a crowded nightclub before reclaiming her power and her pride on the dance floor.   Moments of human frailty notwithstanding, it’s her positive, pro-active approach that ultimately shines through, giving her the ability to stand up against her oppressors – which she does in a memorable climactic scene that delivers both catharsis and righteous satisfaction to her emotional journey.

Of course, Marina’s strength as a character would be lost without a performer of equal strength in the role, and thankfully, “A Fantastic Woman” has found the perfect match in Daniela Vega – a real life trans singer (the magnificent contralto voice heard in the film is her own) who was originally approached by Lelio to act as a consultant before he decided to cast her as his lead.  Bringing the weight of her own experiences to the screen, she creates an unforgettable portrait of resilience.  Tender and demure yet spirited and ferocious, the bravery and honesty of her work gives us a Marina who is not only immediately likable but who gains our respect – as opposed to our pity – as the film goes on.  The raw power of this performance makes it one of the year’s outstanding turns by an actress on the big screen – deserving of the already-brewing buzz about a potential Oscar nod – and allows the movie itself to live up to its title.

Though Vega carries the bulk of the film on her capable shoulders, there is also some nice work from her fellow cast members.  Francisco Reyes does a fine job as Orlando; he generates a deep impression during his all-too-brief appearance, giving tangibility to Marina’s grief and creating a lingering memory which is as haunting to the audience as it is to her.  Aline Küppenheim and Nicolás Saavedra (as Orlando’s estranged wife and son, respectively) bring enough humanity to their roles to prevent them from becoming mere hateful caricatures, and Nicolás Saavedra successfully walks the thin line between professional courtesy and personal antipathy as a case-worker ostensibly assigned to help Marina in the aftermath of her tragedy.

As for the film itself, Lelio, working from a screenplay co-written by himself and Gonzalo Maza, has largely avoided over-the-top histrionics or soap-opera melodrama in favor of a restrained, contemplative approach.  Though throughout the story there are omnipresent reminders of the very real oppression of transgender people, “A Fantastic Woman” chooses to focus its attention on the personal quest for self-actualization instead of dwelling on social issues.  These things are neither ignored nor downplayed; rather, they are duly noted as Marina gets on with the business of rising above them.  As a result, what might have been a bleak and disheartening tale of transphobia becomes an uplifting portrait of personal triumph – sending a refreshingly positive message into a world wrapped (for the moment, at least) in regressive fear and uncertainty.

As a side note, “A Fantastic Woman,” which is a Chilean/German co-production, is one of five LGBTQ-themed titles that have been officially submitted for an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Language Film.  Along with the others – Norway’s “Thelma,” France’s “BPM: Beats Per Minute,” South Africa’s “The Wound,” and Finland’s “Tom of Finland” – it stands as a positive representation of the community within a media that has been traditionally either hostile or indifferent to it.  Its an unlikely event that these five films would end up being the official slate of nominees; but odds are good that at least one of them will make the cut – and if that’s the case, it’s a win for all of us.

(Update: since the original publication of this review, “A Fantastic Woman” received the Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of 2017 – though Daniela Vega was not nominated for her performance, she still has the distinction of being the first trans actress to lead an Oscar-nominated film.)

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The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

thedeathandlifeofmarshapjohnson_posterToday’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Los Angeles Blade

On June 6, 1992, a body was pulled out of the Hudson River onto a West Village pier.  Bystanders quickly recognized it as that of Marsha P. Johnson, a well-known figure in the neighborhood and one of the most visible – and colorful – personalities in the ongoing movement for gay and transgender rights.

Born in New Jersey as Malcolm Michaels in 1945, Johnson had moved to New York at 18, where she became a fixture in the drag balls and street life of the Village.  By 1969 she was a regular at the Stonewall Inn, and she was a key participant in the landmark riots that began there when police raided the bar in the early morning hours of June 28 that year.  Popular legend has maintained that she was the first, or one of the first, to fight back – though she herself disputed that claim, stating that she had arrived well after the conflict had already started.  Regardless of the details, it’s undeniable that she was central to the events of that night and the nights that followed, and that she emerged as a leader in the Gay Liberation Movement that sprung out of them.

Consequently, at the time of her death, the local LGBTQ community responded with surprise and outrage when the police, without any substantial investigation, officially declaring her drowning a suicide – despite insistence from friends and witnesses that she had been a victim of foul play.

This still-unresolved controversy lies at the center of filmmaker David France’s new documentary, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” a film whose title both misleads and tells you exactly what you are about to see.

Rather than presenting a straightforward profile of the beloved LGBTQ activist, France’s film instead focuses its attention on a less famous heroine – Victoria Cruz, a case worker on the verge of retirement from New York’s Anti-Violence Project.  Dedicating her final days on the job to the pursuit of long-overdue justice, Cruz is shown re-examining the files and evidence surrounding Johnson’s untimely death.  She interviews the late icon’s family and friends – such as longtime roommate Randy Wicker, who reported Marsha missing nearly a week before her body was found.  She pores through old news clippings and footage, tracks down retired law enforcement officials, and petitions for autopsy reports long hidden in police storerooms.

Like France’s previous film, “How to Survive a Plague,” this movie is not merely a chronicle of events; rather, in following Cruz’ search for truth and justice, it evokes the spirit of activism that Marsha embodied.  The investigation into her death becomes a springboard into not only a retrospective of the struggle for rights and recognition that defined her own life and times, but into an indictment of our culture’s relationship with violence against its marginalized populations – and in particular, transgender women.

Part of the backdrop of the contemporary segments is the 2016 trial of James Dixon for the murder of Islan Nettles, a transgender woman from Harlem whom he had beaten to death after friends teased him for flirting with her.  The highly-publicized case provides a somber observation of how things have changed since Marsha’s nearly-anonymous death, yet also how much they have not.  Dixon’s defense – that he had been humiliated by “being fooled” – has eerie parallels to stories told by Marsha herself about “tricks” who became enraged after discovering her true gender (even after being repeatedly forewarned), and is a common refrain echoed in similar cases before and since.

Ultimately, as the film makes clear, it is uncertain whether Marsha met her end in such an incident, and it is beyond France’s scope to delve deeper into the issue of anti-trans violence.  Nevertheless, “The Death of Marsha P. Johnson” gives it enough of a peripheral glance to serve as a grim reminder of how far our society has yet to go in its protection of the most vulnerable among us.

Yet although it is, at its core, a film about tragedy, it’s also about the resilience of those determined to rise above it.  France gives us plenty of Marsha at her audacious best, displaying the kind of dignity and character that belied her status as one of society’s outcasts – a fringe-dweller forced to make her living as a sex worker even as she was being photographed by Warhol and lauded as one of the LGBTQ movement’s foremost campaigners.  Marsha had it tough, but she devoted herself to making life better for an entire community whose existence was a daily struggle.

Reinforcing this theme of dedication, the movie devotes considerable screen time to Sylvia Rivera, another social justice pioneer who was Johnson’s closest friend.  Archival footage documents not only their side-by-side efforts for the trans community, but also her own fall into alcoholism and homelessness before reclaiming her role as one of the movement’s greatest heroines.

Watching these two “drag queens” (their own preferred self-identification), presented alongside the modern-day saga of Cruz and others who carry their torch, brings home the point of “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.”  Though France provides the biographical background we expect, and piques our interest with a true-life detective story, his true purpose is not to inform or to intrigue – he wants to inspire us, even incite us.  His movie is no less than a call to action.

Though she never referred to herself as “transgender,” Marsha was nevertheless a fierce activist and vocal advocate for the trans community, and has been embraced as one of their most revered icons.  At a time in our history when the powers that be are pushing back hard against trans acceptance and equality, David France’s film is an important reminder of the humanity at stake.

By using her life – and death – as a means to spread that message, he does Marsha P. Johnson proud.