Sam Feder's Netflix documentary aims to be the trans equivalent of The Celluloid Closet – and it's much more than that
DISCLOSURE (Sam Feder). 100 minutes. Now streaming on Netflix Canada. Rating: NNNN
In a number of interviews about his new documentary Disclosure, which examines the history of trans representation in American film and television, director Sam Feder has cited The Celluloid Closet as its inspiration.
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s 1995 film expanded on Vito Russo’s book about the queerness coded into the very DNA of Hollywood storytelling by juxtaposing clips from decades of movies with cultural commentary by the people who made them, and the people who decoded them and saw themselves in that code. But there’s a key difference: The Celluloid Closet contains the work of queer writers, actors and filmmakers, while the trans narratives in Disclosure are almost always produced by and for straight, white, cis men.
But what makes Disclosure more moving to me, and at least as important as its predecessor, is that the people Feder interviews about those narratives are all trans: actors, writers, critics and filmmakers confronting the ways in which those fictionalized images influenced their own identities, for good or ill.
It’s mostly ill: for decades, trans people could only see themselves on screens as murder victims on crime shows, or represented by characters whose sole dramatic purpose was to be exposed and othered. Clip after clip shows the same handful of performers as characters doomed to suffer because they chose to be true to themselves Alexandra Billings even booked episodes of ER and Grey’s Anatomy in the same year, dying of testicular cancer in one and breast cancer in the other.
And if a trans character was accepted for who they were, it was because the movie’s main character needed to show personal growth, as in The Crying Game or Dallas Buyers Club. And even when a movie like Boys Don’t Cry presented a positive representation of a trans character in Hilary Swank’s Brandon Teena, that film still ended with an unflinching re-enactment of his brutal murder – and entirely erased Phillip DeVine, the Black man who was killed along with Brandon and Brandon’s friend Lisa Lambert that night.
Feder and editor Stacy Goldate illustrate a century of clips as old as D.W. Griffith’s Judith Of Bethulia and as recent as Ryan Murphy’s Pose with thoughtful commentary from Laverne Cox (an executive producer on the project), Jen Richards, Yance Ford, Trace Lysette, Lilly Wachowski and many more. Their stories are personal and complex, and often heart-rending after a montage of 90s films in which cis men vomit on realizing a woman in their company is trans, Richards mentions she couldn’t go on a date with a man without worrying about it – but also points out that those movies were the only opportunity she had to see a trans character on screen, and essential to her own understanding of herself.
Not every selection is given the same consideration – Jill Soloway’s Transparent, clearly a major milestone in trans representation, gets about as much time as the loathsome Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (which is decidedly not) – and nonbinary representation is relegated to a brief clip of Asia Kate Dillon in Showtime’s Billions, though of course there’s not much else to draw from.
But those caveats aside, Disclosure stands as an important historical corrective. And Feder ultimately manages to achieve something The Celluloid Closet couldn’t, pointing out all the opportunities for genuine representation that didn’t happen because the people holding the cameras just weren’t interested.