Review: Disclosure

Year: 2020
Runtime: 100 Minutes
Director: Sam Feder
Stars: Laverne Cox, Bianca Leigh, Jen Richards, Alexandra Billings, Lilly Wachowski

By Caelyn O’Reilly

“Disclosure” is a vital, near-perfect documentary on transgender representation in film and television that is one of the most singularly cathartic viewing experiences that I as a trans person have ever experienced. Sam Feder, along with every interviewee and participant in this production (including Laverne CoxChaz Bono and Angelica Ross) discuss trans issues with maturity and without feeling the need to spoon-feed the basics to cis audiences. This is a film that assuages all my fears that I ask too much of the world by wanting more media made BY trans people FOR trans people.  

The film tracks representations of transness on screen from crossdressing comedies of the silent era right up to the present day through interviews with a host of trans celebrities, media figures and activists. It also makes sure to put a keen focus on intersectionality, discussing how transphobia and racism are frequently intertwined and how this impacts trans people of colour.

“Disclosure” is a vital, near-perfect documentary on transgender representation in film and television that is one of the most singularly cathartic viewing experiences that I as a trans person have ever experienced.

Trans men and Trans Masc people are also given plenty of time to speak for themselves and their representation, with the film acknowledging how trans women are frequently the focus of these discussions. I do wish the film had given similar time to non-binary people, though it does recognise the dearth of such portrayals on-screen. And the film’s focus remains mostly (but not entirely) on English-language American media. 

It may be hard for me to explain to a cis-person just how satisfying an experience watching this film was for me. So many things that I and other Trans people discuss every day on Twitter that I feared would long remain on the margins of mainstream political discourse are here placed front and centre on Netflix. One thing that impressed me was that our need for equal rights and dignity and the existence of trans people of all ages and backgrounds are simply taken as a given.

“Transphobia has for too long been an institutional part in film and television, a point made all the clearer by the film’s montage of cisgender actors winning awards for dressing up and “playing trans”. This NEEDS to change.”

And sadly, that may be one of “Disclosure’s” most transgressive elements. Another element that made me happy is that the film’s interviewees don’t feel the need to sugar-coat or be overly grateful for some of the problematic representations trans people have received, simply because they’re all that we’ve had. They give credit where it’s due but also actively criticise the exploitative production of “Paris is Burning”, the black erasure of “Boys Don’t Cry” and the sexual assault allegations on the set of “Transparent”.

The film also avoids showing trans people as a monolith, not only through social diversity but also through simply showing mild, healthy disagreement. Some participants are fonder of certain representations than others. It may seem like a small thing, but as most cis-created media seems to have an upper limit of one trans person each, seeing several trans people all speaking from their unique and equally valid perspectives is so refreshing. 

This is a film I have waited for and needed for a long time. A small, but distinct reclamation of some power for trans people in the entertainment industries. Even the title, “Disclosure”, is something of a reclamation. The word is used in the film to refer to trans people telling other people that they’re trans and discuss whether trans characters in media have power over their own disclosure. Disclosure is the elephant in the room, the thing that can’t go unaddressed. But in this film, it isn’t trans people’s identities that must be talked about, it’s transphobia. Transphobia has for too long been an institutional part in film and television, a point made all the clearer by the film’s montage of cisgender actors winning awards for dressing up and “playing trans”. This NEEDS to change. 

“If we want this film to have any meaningful societal impact, the first step is to get people to watch it. Especially cis people. But that must be the beginning, not the end.”

Seeing this film feels to me similarly to the way interviewee Jen Richards describes seeing a father profess his love for his transgender son on “I Am Cait”. It’s eye-opening. A look at everything we never knew we wanted because we are routinely conditioned to think we will never get it. Trans people been taught to expect the bare minimum, both from the entertainment industries and society at large and be thankful for what little we get.

We must acknowledge that this isn’t enough, and “Disclosure” recognises this. In its final minutes, various interviewees explain that even fully equal representation in entertainment for trans people will not be enough. Trans people are disenfranchised in every aspect of life: healthcare, housing, employment, etc. More trans filmmakers won’t fix that. If we want this film to have any meaningful societal impact, the first step is to get people to watch it. Especially cis people. But that must be the beginning, not the end.

This film is not a solution, it’s a call to arms. As interviewee and historian Susan Stryker says, “having positive representation can only succeed in changing the conditions of life for trans people when it is part of a much broader movement for social change”. So yes, absolutely go watch this movie, and then let’s make a movement. 

5 stars

“Disclosure” is available to stream from Netflix now. Find out more about the documentary here.

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