Whenever I see a movie about the lives of sex workers, I find myself automatically assessing whether or not the story represents us authentically—or, more accurately, picking apart the ways that it inevitably doesn’t. Tangerine was really the first time I’d seen a movie about us where I didn’t leave the theater with a mental catalog of all the ways they had screwed up. Still, I felt a little ill-qualified to write a review, seeing that it centers around the lives of two black, transgender sex workers on the harsh streets of L.A., and I’m a white, cisgender chick who did pretty much all her hustling online. On one hand, it felt like someone had finally gotten it right, and on the other, I felt like a total faker for feeling that way about the experience of women whose lives are so different from mine in so many ways.
Though I didn’t know it going in (perhaps for the better?) Tangerine was directed by Sean S. Baker, a straight, white, cisgender guy with a film degree from N.Y.U. Collaborating with Mya Taylor, a black trans woman he met in L.A., Baker created a film about the sex workers he saw working in Hollywood. The idea to make a comedy rather than a tragedy was Taylor’s, which puts so much of the film in perspective for me: I know sex workers (and likely trans women, too) have seen ample tragic portrayals of their lives crafted by men outside the business.
It’s Christmas Eve in Hollywood, and Sin Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just been released from a 28-day jail sentence, which we find out later was her punishment for holding her beloved pimp/boyfriend Chester’s (James Ransone) stash. While celebrating her newfound freedom over a donut with her BFF, fellow transgender sex worker Alexandra (Mya Taylor), she learns that while she was doing time, her pimp/boyfriend Chester had been cheating with a “fish” (which I learned means a cisgender woman). And thus begins a rampage through the L.A. underground to find the offending fish and confront Chester.