Blue Jean (dir. – Georgia Oakley)
Early in Blue Jean, a drama that occurs right in the heart of the Thatcher-era UK, we see a building painted with wall-sized propaganda. I don’t remember the exact wording, but it clearly states that citizens should be vigilant against the “homosexual agenda.” At first it feels like ancient history — 1988 was indeed a long time ago. But the viewer need only look around to see how little a difference 35 years makes. Be it online, on the news, or in the papers, the same rhetoric persists, putting forth hateful ideas about normal people with no agenda at all, whose private life deserves as much respect as anyone else’s.
The film follows the difficulties faced by Jean (Rosy McEwen), a teacher and closeted lesbian who is content to remain that way in order to avoid making waves that could complicate her life. This does not sit well with Viv (Kerrie Hayes), her out and proud partner. When Jean sees a student of hers at her local queer hangout, this potential breach of secrecy could cost Jean everything.
It’s the period details that give Blue Jean a strong thematic weight and a contemporary resonance, but it’s the depiction of the central romantic relationship that gives this quietly disturbing drama its power. Jean and Viv might be living what the status quo of the day would call an “alternative lifestyle,” but in practice they’re just a couple of people who like to play pool, go to the bar, and sit around on the couch watching TV. They’re powerfully normal by every metric, yet they must live in hiding nonetheless. Writer/director Georgia Oakley populates the film with details that drive home the passively oppressive nature of a heteronormative society — The Dating Game is frequently on TV, folks will ask Jean if she has a boyfriend, and many will say openly bigoted things, blindly assuming that everyone in the room is, as they see it, normal.
The result is oppression by a thousand cuts, and it’s staggering to watch Jean try to maintain an internal pride when an external one is simply not feasible. It also falls into question who in society actually does have an “agenda.” Oakley’s camera finds drama in every moment, highlighting the often subtle, but always heartbreaking emotional tics in the performers’ faces. Jean’s buttoned-up determination not to rock the boat is a story told with few words, and the fear we see in McEwen’s eyes is matched only by the crushing weight of oppression that she carries in her every move. It’s a remarkable show of acting talent, but it’s Hayes who ends up stealing the film. Her Viv does not have the luxury of hiding in plain sight, and despite being proud of her identity, suffers secondhand pressure from Jean’s resistance to stepping out of the closet. Viv’s desire to thrive is mitigated by the love she has for her partner, and Hayes brings a deep humanity to this duality.
Blue Jean is a quiet drama that sizzles for its entire runtime, thoroughly dissecting the social forces that lead to needless conflict, both visible and invisible, in communities that deserve as much “normalcy” as anyone else.
Kokomo City (dir. – D. Smith)
No single demographic is a monolith. No matter how many characteristics any subset of humanity may share, you can be assured that there is nonetheless a wide spectrum of differences between them. This is perhaps the most striking element of Kokomo City, a documentary that profiles the experiences of four Black trans sex workers, all of whom pull no punches in speaking frankly on how they feel about their lives, their jobs, their bodies, and their places in a society that views them as expendable and unworthy of respect, while simultaneously fetishizing them enough to pay them for carnal pleasure.
Given the subject matter, one would expect such a film to be bleak and upsetting, but somehow Smith has found a way to imbue her film with joy and humor without undercutting the gut-wrenching injustices suffered by the women on screen. This speaks volumes about these women, all of whom are strong, entertaining personalities, and all of whom exhibit a level of class and intellect that many would incorrectly assume would be unobtainable for women in their occupation. To put it (perhaps too) bluntly, all four of these women are real characters, and when they share their stories it’s hard not to be riveted.
Smith lets her subjects do most of the talking, letting them speak directly to camera in stark black and white. The absence of color lends itself to the film’s intimacy, giving an arthouse vibe to what is essentially a series of confessionals. Smith does add additional material via silent visual interpretations of what’s being said. A strong example is a segment where the women (and a few men — more on them in a second) talk about the ‘tough guy’ image to which sexual interaction with a transwoman is seen as a betrayal. While the narrators wax philosophical on what this skewed sense of manhood may be, we are shown a stereotypical tough guy wearing boxing gloves. He mugs for the camera, giving his best “don’t fuck with me” aura, but when he lifts his mitts to fight, he swings his arms in a way that would be classically seen as feminine. It’s simultaneously played for laughs and to highlight the inherent stupidity of the gender roles that so many in our world bend over backwards to uphold. Again, it clarifies that no single demographic is ever a monolith.
There are men interviewed as well, all of whom approach the notion of being “trans-attracted” from a different viewpoint. When placed in conversation with the monologues of the core four women, we can see that perhaps the most insidious of the many hurdles faced by marginalized groups comes in the form of assumptions, which in turn lead to stilted communication. This is why films like Kokomo City end up being so important: we’re actually hearing from the people themselves, rather than from loud avatars who only wish to make noise and drive people into a frenzy. Watching this incredible documentary, one is forced to recognize that the people on screen are exactly that: people. They are real and they are not going anywhere. We’d all do well to hear what they have to say.