Netflix UK film review: Disclosure
James R | On 30, Jun 2020
Director: Sam Feder
Cast: Laverne Cox, Alexandra Billings, Lilly Wachowski, Yance Ford
Watch Disclosure online in the UK: Netflix UK
“We are creatures who want to see our stories reflected back to us.” That’s the truth at the heart of Disclosure, Netflix’s superb new documentary about transgender representation in TV and film. The film, which was snapped up after its premiere at Sundance, is a fantastic piece of filmmaking, serving simultaneously as a social and cultural history lesson and a rallying cry for the media to do better and for people to listen to transgender stories.
It’s impossible to separate those things, because our understanding of other people is rooted unavoidably in the stories we see and hear. Roger Ebert described cinema as a machine for empathy, but the machine that has been codifying our perceptions of the world has been wired in a way that’s inherently biased and exclusionary. Disclosure is a compelling, comprehensive course correction.
A whole host of trans stars, creatives and thinkers all contribute to the film, from Laverne Cox and Lilly Wachowski to Yance Ford, Mj Rodriguez and Jamie Clayton. They explain with moving honesty the frustration and agony of not seeing yourself represented on screen – and, when you are represented, being depicted as a delinquent, a villain or a sex worker (the latter was once the most common occupation given to a transgender guest star in a TV show). “There’s nothing wrong with sex work,” observes actor and producer Tracy Lysette. “But there’s more to that than who we are.”
The always-excellent Alexandra Billings is one of several performers to recall how they kept getting cast as transgender characters who died – “They kept killing me” – and sometimes even filmed two of those roles back-to-back on the same day for different shows.
Director Sam Feder, who also helmed Kate Bornstein Is a Queer & Pleasant Danger in 2014, encourages humour and warmth as well as urgent, clear conviction – there’s a wry wit to many of the observations, even as it’s joined by a poignant pain. We hear of how these commentators question and criticise the harmful representation of trans characters from dated films such as Ace Ventura, yet simultaneously still hold some affection for films they once liked.
That complexity is embraced as well as explained with insightful depth, as the intersectional layers of (mis)representation result in all kinds of confused cultural artefacts, some of them well-meaning. Superbly compiled clips from decades of big and small screen entertainment illustrate even point, including most notably how a classic plot – a woman dresses up as a man to find success and more opportunities – is actually a tale of female empowerment misleadingly packaged as a transmasculine experience.
Even now, years after Jerry Springer and Yentl, society is still at a point where cis male actors such as Jared Leto and Eddie Redmayne are rewarded for their roles in The Dallas Buyers Club or The Danish Girl. These performances may sometimes be well-researched or sensitively acted, but by celebrating them during awards ceremonies, when the actors appear at their most masculine, they also reinforce the notion that transgender identity is some kind of performance.
And yet while Disclosure deconstructs exactly how film and TV has failed the trans community for years, it also celebrates film and TV’s power to succeed in the future. “For the first time, we’re at the centre of our own storytelling,” one contributor notes, as the film considers the landmark series Pose, or Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. Laverne Cox is a standout commentator when it comes to the final act, observing how Hollywood has moved on at least partly from teaching people that the way to react when a trans person’s body is on screen is to vomit. Angelica Ross, meanwhile, points out that after losing so many jobs there’s nothing left to lose: “I’m only going to gain by being authentic and telling the truth.”
Playing out like a companion piece to the excellent Apple TV+ docuseries Visible: Out on Television, Disclosure is an entertaining, informative and essential watch, combating stereotypes in a way that’s accessible and educational as well as supportive and encouraging.
Disclosure is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.