Directed by Sean Baker
Starring: Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O’Hagan, James Ransone
Sean Baker continues to be one of the most powerful low-budget filmmakers of our time, telling stories of the poor or downtrodden and shining a light on groups many of us wouldn’t have the courage to interact with… only to show us that they’re people, just like us. In the case of Tangerine, that marginalized group is black, transgender sex workers in Los Angeles.
During production, Baker had trouble securing financing because the main characters were transgender sex workers, so he shot the entire film on three iPhones, two of which he sold to cover the editing budget (the remaining is, thankfully, on display at the Academy museum). The film premiered at Sundance in 2015, making it the first festival selection to be shot on smartphone.
The following year, the British Film Institute conducted a poll of ONLY its LGBT+ members on the best sexual minority films of all time. Tangerine came in at number 11, a feat unheard of for a year-old movie.
The film was also held up as an example during the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite debacle. In both 2015 and 2016, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (The Oscars) nominated 20 white people out of 20 available slots. Cheryl Boone Issacs, then president of the Academy (the first black person and only third woman to hold that office), was met with responses of “We’re professionals–we just vote for the best,” and “It’s not on purpose [referring to the 94% white, 77% male Academy membership].” That same month, however, Tangerine‘s co-lead, Mya Taylor, won the Spirit Award (The Oscars for Indie Movies) for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first trans woman to do so. Tangerine holds a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, which makes its existence a stark rebuttal to the “not on purpose” defense.
Though Tangerine is a specific snapshot of the transgender experience (one occasionally criticized for its voyeurism), the two leads performers are transgender women themselves, had been sex workers in the past, and were consulted frequently during the screenwriting process.
Because of its race, gender, and vocational portrayal, along with its innovative cinematography and direction, Tangerine has become a must-see LGBT+ film (along with a spicy addition to the usual eggnog served during your friend group’s Christmas movie marathon).
This makes the second Sean Baker film I’ve seen (after the heartbreaking The Florida Project), and I’ve noticed that when each of his films are released, I say, “Oh, cool!” then aggressively avoid them for five years.
When consulting for last week’s Psycho post, Ashley recommended I watch Tangerine to get a trans perspective radically different than her own. I was out of excuses, so I finally gathered the courage to queue this film up.
Sin-dee is a trans sex worker in Los Angeles who got matrimonially engaged to her pimp, Chester, before being sent to prison for a month. Now, on Christmas Eve, she’s released and can’t wait to meet back up with her fiancée… Or rather, that was the case until Alexandra, her best friend, let slip that Chester’s been cheating on her with a cis-gendered escort named Dinah (pronounced Dine-ah, not Deen-ah–GET IT RIGHT!).
Now, Sin-dee is out for the truth, but she’ll have to use every connection she can bully into finding Dinah and Chester, then confront them. Poor Alexandra’s in tow, if only to make sure her best friend shows up to her Christmas concert.
Yes, but it’s a downer, so if you’re a self-described “uppers ho,” you’re gonna have a bad trip. Early on in the film, Alexandra pleads with Sin-dee that she “doesn’t want drama.” Sin-dee promises her that there won’t be, but she has a glimmer in her eye that says otherwise.
My friend, who was watching the movie with me, turned to me at this moment and said, “I hate people like this. This is gonna be a stressful watch.”
She was right. As the rest of the movie played out, I recalled viewing Uncut Gems and having a minor heart attack watching Adam Sandler’s character make increasingly dangerous gambling decisions. Tangerine‘s Sin-dee is a hurricane of a woman who is often the architect of her own misery. Nevertheless, her magnetism (or, perhaps, her personal low-pressure, high-speed storm system) draws people in, only to shred them, flinging them 90 miles from where they started. The personal conflicts Sin-dee engages in are brutal and cut to the bone, making many scenes intensely uncomfortable to watch. I don’t like her–most of all because I adore her best friend, Alexandra. Alexandra stands firm in the face of Sin-dee’s maelstrom until the climax of the film, and only in the final scene of the movie does the viewer understand why they’re best friends in the first place.
That’s kinda the point of the movie, though. I don’t personally know any black, transgender sex workers from Los Angeles. By the end of Tangerine, however, I wanted to befriend one and have nothing to do with the second. Such are my feelings towards people in my neighborhood–I’d drop everything to help some while rolling my eyes at others. Finding so much common ground with people I don’t normally associate makes Tangerine essential viewing.
I wouldn’t call my viewing experience enjoyable, which harkens back to the age-old “art vs. entertainment” clash. This movie is important; its voice, invaluable; its style, groundbreaking. It also has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments (see Dinah’s name pronunciation above). The combative nature of Tangerine‘s main character hit me as abrasive, however, and was too much medicine for any amount of sugar to help.
That said, I suspect that both my friend and I have perspective bias. My midwestern upbringing (along with some fun family dynamics) make conflict uncomfortable to even watch, especially the cutting nature Sin-dee displays. If that doesn’t bother you, this movie will go down much easier. If it DOES bother you, don’t worry, because the movie’s under 90 minutes, so you won’t be cringing long.