Review: Tangerine (2015)
It’s Christmas Eve in Los Angeles, but this isn’t a lavish affair in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills à la The Holiday. It’s more of a fling with fate and whoever happens to pull up to the curb with some cash, provided they’re not the LAPD.
The first shot in Tangerine is a close up of two pairs of hands positioned around a paper bag, which contains a single rainbow sprinkles donut. The hands belong to Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) - two friends who begin catching up, covering an array of topics in fast succession: money, relationships, bodies. More specifically, how Alexandra’s phone contract has been cut off because she’s been paying Sin-Dee’s rent; how well the oestrogen has been working to sculpt a ‘womanly’ body (with the exception of her arms); and Sin-Dee seems excited to share a secret about a relationship with someone called Chester, but is stopped in her tracks after Alexandrea lets it slip that he cheated while Sin-Dee was away.
As an opening scene, it provides a well-rounded introduction to the two main characters: what they look like, their setting, the depth of their friendship, how they speak and use language, as well as some of the challenges they face, which lays the foundations for the main arc of the film – finding the girl whose name starts with ‘D’. It’s a loaded conversation with statements like “all men cheat… that’s why they’re called trade”, implying negative experiences of men as well indicating their line of work. Yet, as much as we learn about these two transgender sex workers, the more questions are posed. Who exactly is Chester? Why was Sin-Dee gone for 28 days? Are they going to have a Christmas dinner or is that donut it? And, as Alexandra asks, “What are you plotting?”
Director Sean Baker uses parallel action to portray Sin-Dee’s rampage across West Hollywood - specifically Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue - in search of the woman whose name begins with D (Desiree? Dee Dee? Dominique? Danielle?) alongside Razmik, an Armenian taxi driver, whose customers simultaneously provide a commentary about the people of Los Angeles as well as bringing a source of dark comedy from the back seats of his cab. He picks up a woman and her dead dog, a prolific selfie-taker, a man asking for aspirin and, every cabby’s worst nightmare: a puker. Never mind the fact that these people could have their own episode in a mini-series about the people of LA, Razmik himself is keeping some secrets which the audience become privy to in his family home and a car wash, of all places. The irony of this being a place where cars go to be cleaned is both genius and hilarious given the activity taking place inside his taxi.
After aggravating anyone she can on ‘the block’ Sin-Dee finally finds a girl who fits the (minimal) description in a ‘party room’ and brings a new meaning to ‘dragging’ someone. Clearly, being removed from your place of work when you're in the middle of it isn't going to be appreciated, and Sin-Dee doesn't exactly take care of the person she's snatched, but at the same time, you can't help but admire her determination. She manhandles and quite literally manoeuvres Dinah across neighbourhoods and onto buses in search of Chester – to do what when she gets to him is not entirely clear. To embarrass him? To check it’s the right person? To catch him out?
In these scenes where Sin-Dee and Dinah are travelling, the camera often tracks their movement, allowing the audience a glimpse into subcultures we rarely get to see on screen. Sex work and prostitution have been depicted in cinema before now, but Pretty Woman this ain’t. Though this film is set in Tinseltown, there is nothing Hollywood-ised about it. Instead, expect an unfiltered realness and uncompromised representation of the struggle, deprivation and ongoing injustices facing black trans sex workers. The only character who veers into caricature territory is Chester – the tracksuit, cap, tattoos and pseudo aggression are tapping into one too many stereotypical features at one time, but this does provide some light relief in scenes where the conflict peaks.
In the third act, Razmik’s interfering mother-in-law aptly observes, “Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie,” and this film goes some way to revealing what lies beneath decades of polishing, distortion and oppression. Sin-Dee claims the film’s core storyline – she’s the one who’s just returned (we can assume with confidence, from prison) so it’s her arrival which acts as a catalyst for the action. Her character commands such a presence that it’s hard sometimes to consider who the other characters really are. Alexandra is far less outspoken and doesn’t have the same need to chase drama as her friend. However, it is clear that she has dreams beyond the block, as proven by giving the very little money she has to a venue owner so she can sing songs (beautifully, it must be said) to a handful of people in an empty bar. The likelihood of her being able to escape the cycle of prostitution seems minute – in a city saturated by wannabe starlets, it’s a sad reality that a black trans woman would be far less likely to be picked up by a scout than her cis, white female counterpart.
On the back of a transphobic attack, it becomes apparent that Alexandra and Sin-Dee need each other more than we previously realised. Their friendship is what opens our eyes to another side of Hollywood, it holds the film together, and appropriately, ends the film. Thanks to Sin-Dee’s vulnerability and Alexandra’s kindness, these characters go some way to showing the extremity of emotional hardship that transgender women experience.
Anti-transgender violence is a real threat and the statistics for the black transgender community are staggering. This film goes some way to highlighting a fully humanised portrayal of life in their shoes. When considering the wider context of this film and the real people it is representing, it is worth knowing that in America, trans women of colour have a life expectancy of 35 years of age. Moreover, an analysis of a survey by the national LGBTQ task force found that black transgender people had an extremely high unemployment rate at 26% (two times the rate of the overall transgender sample and four times the rate of the general population); 49% of black respondents reported having attempted suicide; 41% of black respondents said they had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives (more than five times the rate of the general US population); black transgender people lived in extreme poverty with 34% reporting a household income of less than $10,000 per year; and black transgender people were affected by HIV in devastating numbers - more than one-fifth of respondents were living with HIV, compared to a rate of 2.64% for transgender respondents of all races, 2.4% for the general black population, and 0.60% of the general US population. The HRC (Human Rights Campaign) report from November last year also found that since the start of 2019, at least 22 transgender and gender non-conforming people have been killed in the US – and all but one were black.
Debuted at Sundance Film Festival, Baker’s comedy-drama was shot on an iPhone 5S – a truly impressive feat. Colour grading is used to oversaturate the space in which the characters live, with a yellow hue dominant for the entirety of the film. Where this might usually be used to create a sepia tone to connote nostalgia and fond memories, here it is used to convey a striking off-colour, going hand in hand with the characters’ uneasiness in their fickle and dangerous lives. And yet, even among the sex, drugs and deceit, there is a beauty in that the protagonist and her best friend are able to live their truth in the tangerine-toned Californian sun. In the near future, the hope is that the real Sin-Dees and Alexandras of the world will be afforded more opportunities to follow their dreams, and just by making a film featuring trans actors, Sean Baker has taken a huge step in providing some hope for the trans community.
Verdict: An indie film about charismatic black trans hookers in Hollywood. As long as you don't mind 'bitch' being used at the end of every sentence, what's not to like!? More trans roles with trans actors, please.
Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬🎬
Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡💡
A list of support and community organisations in the UK that work with trans and non-binary people of all ages: www.allabouttrans.org.uk/support-organisations