This film was not an official part of the NY International Latino Film Festival. However, there was a lot of support and marketing among the NYILFF for this film and I watched it during the festival as one of the films I chose to review.
By now many have heard about this film from one space or another. It is still only in theaters on a limited release basis in NYC and LA. As one of the (very) few films that feature and center Latinos and is created by Latinos, the fact that this film is in theaters is a huge accomplishment. The film stars Judy Reyes as Angela, Esai Morales as Ernesto, and presents Harmony Santana as Vanessa. View the trailer below:
The film chronicles Vanessa’s experiences living in the Bronx as a young transgender Latina poet whose father, Ernesto, is recently released from prison and has moved back into the home with Vanessa and Angela. Communication between Ernesto and his family is already strained and as he begins to realize Vanessa (whom Ernesto continues to call Michael) is no longer the son he remembers or desires to have, his abuse unravels and impacts his family directly.
I was not sure what more to expect from this film as I thought I had seen and heard so much about it already, what more could there be to the story? There were many moments where I thought the film was following tired patterns many media engage in when presenting the story of transgender women. For example, there was an extended scene of Vanessa putting on makeup, jewelry, clothing, and doing her hair. Then there were moments in the film where there was extreme discomfort for me as a viewer, watching the multiple ways the women in the film (Angela and Vanessa) are abused. Not only are both women in scenes where they do not to consent to have sex, but the emotional abuse, name-calling, and isolation was overwhelming.
I understand these narratives are all too often a reality among our community. Yet, these were some examples of what film critics and folks discussing the film have left out. Also excluded were conversations about the complexity race, ethnicity, gender, and class present for the characters. I could not decide how Vanessa’s family may identify their class status, and if that may have played a role in some of the narrative even if it was not explored. For example, Vanessa feels comfortable asking her mother for $20 here and there and her mother freely gives it to her without question. We see Angela at work in a professional setting, yet Ernesto is working in the kitchen of a restaurant and we know Angela was the only person with an income for several years. They live in a home that is modestly decorated, Angela has a vehicle, and beyond that I wonder if viewers are expected to think about the class of the characters based on stereotypes we have of the Bronx and the Caribbean Latinos who live there.
Then there is the fact that Judy Reyes is a LatiNegra and identifies as one, yet an understanding and discussion of Blackness and how it may intersect with their Latinidad is not presented at all. Vanessa’s partnering with a racially Black man provides a good introduction to this reality, yet there is no interrogation or further explanation in the film.
Towards the end of the film I found myself already figuring out how it would end, which is disappointing. We watch as Ernesto struggles with his rigid gender norms and expectations, ideas of masculinity, and what it means to be a father. Much of this centers on humiliating his child and blaming his wife. There are some stereotypes that I think were definitely perpetuated in the film with Ernesto’s character, mainly his taking Vanessa to a sex worker he hired to sleep with her (the second non-consensual sex scene). We are given the impression Ernesto is doing this to “help Michael become a man” or “find out what he’s missing” or “he just needs a good sexual encounter” to realize he’s a “man.” I thought this parent-taking-a-child-to-a-sex-worker was a bit dated. I don’t doubt this may still occur among a few folks, but this seemed to be something that may have been more common decades ago, especially among Caribbean Latinos who have lived in the US for generations.
I do think the film does a good job of demonstrating how, our society (and world) does not accept/respect people. I was left being reminded that just because we accept ourselves, does not mean that the rest of society (or the world) will. There was also the reminder that as each of us needs time to come to a space of acceptance, the people in our lives need this time as well. Ernesto being abusive definitely was a reason, I believe, his wife and family did not share with him what Vanessa’s experiences and needs were. It is clear Ernesto lacked supportive friends and did not trust any of the resources his parole officer may have offered him, which I believe is very much a reality for many men of Color and fathers of Color.
What I did appreciate was that Vanessa had a very supportive circle of friends. People her age who accepted, encouraged, and protected her were all around. We see them having fun in school, after school, during the evening, and being “moral support.” And, although Angela was supportive and present towards Vanessa’s needs, we see how many parents have no idea what more their children need when they are transgender. Finally, even though the film takes place in NYC, where there are significantly more resources for transgender people than other cities in the US, we do not see Vanessa or her family access those resources. I think this is a reality that many providers and educators do not want to often admit. Even though these resources exist, many youth, especially youth of Color and working class youth are not accessing them. This is for many reasons, but we see Vanessa not going too far from home and staying local (except to Camaradas for poetry nights, which for folks who do not know the area, is located in Spanish Harlem). Vanessa also trusts one local transgender Latina who provides her with suggestions and medication regarding hormones and body shape. This representation is one that I understand, as someone who wants a provider to understand my background and experiences versus one who does not.
I left the theatre wondering: who was this film created for? What messages did the director and writer want to leave with audiences? And was the film effective in any way? There are many triggering parts of the film for many folks, as with many films. Stating this is “just a film” or “just a story” seems condescending. It is clear the director and writer put a lot of thought into creating this film. For those of you who have seen the film how would you answer some of these questions?
Find out where Gun Hill Road is showing by visiting the official webpage.