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Transgender family drama breaks barriers.
by David-Elijah Nahmod
Following the rise of a visible transgender community and movement comes a new transgender cinema. Working outside of the Hollywood studio system, independent filmmakers are now telling stories that humanize transgender people and explain the phenomenon to the unenlightened.
Shot on a shoestring budget, Rashaad Ernesto Green’s Gun Hill Road didn’t attract much attention from the mainstream media when it was shown at film festivals a few years back. Now available on DVD, this gem is ready to be discovered by a wider audience.
Green’s first feature is a powerful, groundbreaking drama. The film derives its title from the rough-and-tumble thoroughfare in the Bronx, New York City’s northern borough. Stretching 3.5 miles through several neighborhoods, Gun Hill Road is home to a large working-class Latino population. It’s a traditionally conservative community that’s had its share of problems due to gang violence.
It’s in this world that Michael (Harmony Santana) is living a double life—when not in the family home, Michael becomes Vanessa. Vanessa is not a drag persona: she’s a transgender, exploring and discovering her true self in a culture where a machismo mentality rules the roost. While Michael is pressured to “bang chicks” and attend ball games, Vanessa is experimenting with makeup, hairstyles, writing poetry, and looking for a boyfriend.
Santana, a transgender actress, gives a career-making performance as both personas. Though female-identified, Santana courageously appears on camera as both male and female. As Michael, she eloquently conveys the anguish of a teenager who wants to be loved and accepted by a father who does love her, but cannot accept her.
Esai Morales, who’s enjoyed a long career as a character actor, gives an Oscar-worthy performance as conflicted father Enrique. He has no idea how to react to what Michael/Vanessa is trying to tell him. Enrique often reacts with rage as he pushes Michael to “act like a man.”
Enrique, a machismo ex-con, is confused, frightened, blindsided, and unprepared for what he’s dealing with. He loves his son, and yearns for them to have a close relationship. When he takes Michael to see a prostitute, he’s not trying to hurt Michael. Enrique’s actions are misguided but loving nonetheless. He’s unable to see that he doesn’t actually have a son.
This stormy relationship is at the heart of Gun Hill Road. Morales and Santana play off each other beautifully. The tension, the resentment, and the love they feel for each other boils to the surface at a fever pitch.
In an interview included on the DVD, filmmaker Green, himself a Bronx native, explains what moved him to tell this story. “It’s a coming-of-age story for both the father and child,” he says. “It’s tackling issues that we don’t want to deal with in our community.”
Green reveals that he’s seen families destroyed by their inability to discuss the issues that he puts forward in his film. “I wanted to explore a side of the Bronx that we haven’t seen on screen before. We’re used to seeing cops and robbers and various stereotypes, but I’ve never seen families explored in a way that I experienced in the Bronx. I’ve never seen families explored as a culture that’s rooted in love, and I wanted to show that.”
Family dynamics are at the core of Gun Hill Road. As Enrique struggles to connect with his child, he wages an equally difficult battle to hold on to his relationship with his wife, the long-suffering Angela (Judy Reyes). She’s grown weary of Enrique’s inability to stay out of trouble. Angela holds down a job and keeps a roof over their heads. She does everything she can to protect her child.
Slowly, Enrique comes to realize who his child is. Director Green invites the audience to join Enrique on his voyage of discovery. As Michael fully embraces her identity as Vanessa, her father, and Gun Hill Road viewers, come to an understanding of why some people cannot live in the bodies they were born into. We learn why they must transition into their true selves if they are to live full and complete lives.
From Virgil Films & Entertainment (virgilfilmsent.com).
David-Elijah Nahmod interviewed Michael Lucas, director of Undressing Israel: Gay Men in the Promised Land, for the February issue of OutSmart magazine.