I Can’t Believe I Just Now Heard of ‘Tangerine’; We Need More Narratives Representing Black Transgender Women

(Trigger Warning for mention of transphobia and spoiler warning for major plot points and ending.)

Tangerine (2015)  follows a transgender sex worker Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) after being released from her 28 day incarceration. Upon being let go on Christmas Eve she learns from her best friend and fellow transgender sex worker, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), that her boyfriend and pimp Chester (James Ransone) has cheated on her with a cis-gendered woman during her imprisonment . Enraged by this revelation, Sin-Dee Rella sets out for vengeance on the two and hijinks ensue.

Going into Tangerine I was expecting quite a different narrative. I was not aware that it was a comedy, and was expecting a gritty, realistic portrayal of the hardships of living as a black transgender woman who is a sex worker. While elements of that do shine through in the film, it also has plenty of goofy and somewhat lighthearted scenes that eases the heaviness that comes with that lifestyle. The entire movie is very chaotic, but to its benefit; while it has a slower start there are rarely any monotonous scenes from about the midway point onward. One could suspect many of the audience may feel alienation from Tangerine’s characters (being that they are a precise combination of demographics that the majority of viewers may not personally relate to) and setting, but the more time you spend amongst them they ease you in and put you on the same level of emotion as the characters are feeling. Even amongst ridiculous moments such as Sin-Dee frantically tracking down Chester and tossing around Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) for multiple scenes on end, and the climax confrontation scene of all the main stories culminating in a momentous crash, there are morsels of tender moments. While present, they are few and far between the much more eccentric rest of the run time, but they still manage to be effective and stand out in memory as much if not more than the more comedic moments. A few that come to mind are when Alexandra sings “Toyland” at a bar where she’s preforming. The space is all but empty but her close friend and Dinah. (Whose all but captive to Sin-Dee Rella, stopping the attack on her partner’s mistress and drags her along when she realizes she’ll miss her friend’s show.) The two listen in a drugged haze, but still display a look of being completely enveloped in a quiet, thoughtful moment. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in particular conveys a lot of depth in her face as she listens to the performance, as in genuine deep contemplation. Immediately after this scene, we have a moment of Sin-Dee applying cosmetics onto Dinah. Although under the influence of a substance, the moment between the two is slow and has an aura of kindness to it, juxtaposing the physical altercations the two had prior before this point. In an unorthodox sort of way they almost seem to soften to one another despite the extreme conflict displayed earlier. The moment that takes the cake though for tugging at heartstrings comes at the end. Chester exposes that not only did he cheat on Sin-Dee with Dinah, but also with Alexandra, her best friend. (Alexandra conveniently leaves out this detail at the beginning of the film when telling Sin-Dee about Chester’s unfaithfulness.) Instead of trying to fight Alexandra as she did with Dinah before, Sin-Dee is so hurt that she storms off defeated. There’s captured raw emotion that it wasn’t just about being cheated on, but there’s extra insult to injury that it was her intimate friend that betrayed her. She tries to pick up clients, and eventually a car stops and the men inside throw a cup of urine at her while yelling transphobic slurs. Alexandra quickly swoops in to come to the aid of her distraught companion, and they go to a nearby laundromat to get her cleaned up. In the most touching scene of the film, Sin-Dee feels self-conscious having to take her wig off in order to clean it and in an act of kindness and peace offer, Alexandra takes off her own wig to give to her companion to help her feel less insecure, especially after such an upsetting encounter. Interestingly enough the main characters are the only ones to have a somewhat hopeful ending compared to the side characters, who are all left estranged in some way or another.

Alexandra giving Sin-Dee her wig so she’ll feel less distraught as they wait for her own wig and clothes to get cleaned.

I would rate Tangerine an Incluvie score of 5/5! Films staring black transgender actresses/actors are few and far between, it’s refreshing to see a demographic represented in film that hardly gets any attention.  This is especially important as the Black trans community has been shown in studies to face the highest level of discrimination amongst general trans and non-binary groups. That is why it’s so crucial that we amplify their voices through any way we can, storytelling being a great medium to do so. I also appreciated the detail that many of the characters were also sex workers, a profession that is often written off in derogatory ways but is humanized the way it’s portrayed in the narrative. The profession certainly is not glamorized, but it also isn’t framed as something that is inherently disgusting and shameful as it’s often painted out to be. 

As a general movie score, I would rate Tangerine a 3.5/5 as before the middle point and after the initial few scenes it dragged somewhat and took some time to pick up speed. While I did appreciate what comedy there was, I felt like I was wanting more from the story in terms of more slower-paced and thoughtful moments because the ones that were included were what I found to be the best segments.


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