Film review: Tangerine hits home for this trans movie critic

Film captures gritty reality of transgender life on the streets

By Joanna Wagner
LGBT Perspectives Film Critic

SAN FRANCISCO — Tangerine was not an easy movie for me to watch. It presents transgender characters in ways that are harsh. Starting on a humorous note, there is banter between two transgender street prostitutes, like the fun kind you see on TV cop shows. It’s fine for a while, but here it was between the lead characters, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), and became very dark throughout the film.

The banter helps to keep these women from losing their minds. They live in a tragic reality. Like many transgender women, they live on the fringes of society. This is especially true for women of colour. Marginalized and unemployable, they earn their living on the street. Frequently, they become drug users. It kills the pain and allows escape from their bleak lives.

The movie opens with Sin-Dee, a crazy black trans woman, emerging from a 30-day jail sentence after she took the fall for her pimp on a drug-possession charge. Thirty days is an eternity for people on the street. Her drug-dealing pimp/fiancé has taken up with a cis girl, Dinah, a classic crack whore. He doesn’t even meet Sin-Dee or pick her up when she’s released from jail. Yet she forgives him and with Alexandra in tow, launches a hunt to find the white bitch “with a vagina and everything.” In a rage, she stalks the streets looking for the woman. She doesn’t see that it’s not the other girl that’s her problem.

Running parallel is the story of Razneek, an Armenian immigrant and cab driver. Razneek has a family and an apartment. He has been drawn into the world of street life and exposes a sad truth about transgender life. Men who chase after trans women often have a desire to get intimate with a penis. Hooking up with a man would mean they were gay, an intact trans woman is another matter. If she has breasts and wears makeup, it’s okay to fellate her. Razneek leaves his family’s Christmas dinner to see Alexandra. His attraction to her trumps spending time with his two-year-old daughter.

The movie brought out a range of emotions for me: Laughter at the beginning with the antics of these black tranny hoes, followed by a growing anger at myself and the filmmakers. I was laughing at these characters; being a transgender street prostitute is not funny.

California Dreamin': Two transgender women in L.A. dream of better lives in the film Tangerine. (Image credit: Tangerine)
California Dreamin’: Two transgender women in L.A. dream of better lives in the film Tangerine. (Image credit: Tangerine)

These women are dealing the best they can with a terrible situation. They’re black, transgender, poor and without resources. I could see under the bravado the desperate women looking for a way out. For Sin-Dee, this was her dream of marriage to the pimp who exploited her — “I love you, baby, now go make me some money so you can buy some drugs from me.”

For Alexandra, it was the dream of a singing career. She recruited her friends to come to a nightclub performance where she paid for the stage. It gave her hope.

I have known transgender women who have lived a similar existence. I’ve been chased off a street corner by girls who thought I was new competition, hit on by men like Razneek.  I remember talking with a young prostitute outside a nightclub once. She was a sweet girl just trying to make rent. I take for granted the privilege and advantage I’ve had as a transgender woman; white, educated with a supportive family. How different my life could be.

The film was shot on an iPhone, which gave it the harsh contrast of the pale Southern California sun. Almost the entire film was shot outside. The only interiors are brief moments in a seedy hotel room and a donut shop at Highland and Santa Monica Blvd. I don’t know the exact locations of the rest of the film, but they certainly look like the gritty, empty streets of the real Hollywood. The actors, both of whom are real transgender women, were brilliant; they brought to life a wonderful script and made it believable.

Go see this movie, but don’t bring your mom.

In theatrical release, check your local listings.

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