Gun Hill Road 86 minutes Rated R
Shot on a shoestring budget, Rashaad Ernesto Green's Gun Hill Road didn't attract much attention from the mainstream media when it was shown at film festivals a few years back. After an all too brief theatrical run, the film appeared destined for obscurity. Which should not happen.
Now available on DVD, Green's first feature is a powerful, groundbreaking drama. The film derives its title from the rough and tumble thoroughfare in the Bronx, New York City's Northern Borough. Stretching 3.5 miles through several neighborhoods, Gun Hill Road is home to a large, working class Latino population. It's a traditionally conservative community that's had its share of problems due to gang violence. Bronx native Green knows the area well.
It's in this world that Michael (Harmony Santana) is living a double life--when not in the family home, Michael becomes Vanessa. Vanessa is not a drag persona: she is transgender; exploring and discovering her true self in a culture where a Machismo mentality rules the roost. While Michael is pressured to "bang chicks" and attend ball games, Vanessa is experimenting with make-up, hairstyles, writing poetry, and looking for a boyfriend.
Santana, a transgender actress, gives a career making performance as both personas. Though female identified, Santana courageously appears on camera as both male and female. As Michael, she eloquently conveys the anguish of a teenager who wants to be loved and accepted by a father who does love her, but cannot accept her.
Esai Morales, as conflicted dad Enrique, gives an equally brilliant performance. Morales is a fine character actor who’s enjoyed a lengthy career on television and in film. On the surface, tough ex-con Enrique, on parole and unable to stay out of trouble, appears to be a gruff, uncaring, homophobe/transphobe. His attempts to make "a man" out of Michael are often denigrating, and can border on outright cruelty.
Look closer. Enrique is confused, frightened, blindsided and unprepared for what he's dealing with. He loves his son, and yearns for them to have a close relationship. When he takes Michael to see a prostitute, he's not trying to hurt Michael. Enrique's actions are misguided but loving nonetheless. He's unable to see that he doesn't actually have a son, and has no idea how to react to Vanessa.
This stormy relationship is at the heart of Gun Hill Road. Morales and Santana play off each other beautifully. The tension, the resentment, and the love they feel for each other boils to the surface at a fever pitch.
Judy Reyes of NBC's Scrubs offers able support, both as an actor, and as the long-suffering wife and mother Gloria. She still loves her husband, but has grown weary of his inability to pull his life together. She's ready to move on. Gloria also loves her child, and doesn't care if it's Michael or Vanessa. She just wants her child to be safe and happy.
Shot on location in the neighborhood where it's set, Gun Hill Road captures the grit of a community where life is no walk in the park. In the small but growing canon of transgender representation on film, Gun Hill Road is a major achievement. It not only explains the transgender phenomenon to those who may not understand it, the film humanizes trans people.
The film also shows that like their gay, lesbian and bisexual brethren, transgender people indeed come from every walk of life.
Virgil Films' DVD release of Gun Hill Road includes an interview with Rashaad Erenesto Green, which was shot at the Latino Film Festival at Indiana University.
Also of interest:
Soldier's Girl (2003)
Originally produced for Showtime, where it still occasionally airs, Soldier's Girl is based on the true story of the brief, intense love affair between Barry Winchell, a sweet country bumpkin stationed at a Tennessee military base, and Calpernia Addams, a transgender woman who performs at a local club. Addams, at the time, was pre-op.
The love-struck Winchell could only see the beautiful girl he was falling in love with. When his fellow soldiers realized who he was dating, Winchell was brutally murdered.
Addams is now a post-op transgender actress living and working in Hollywood. Soldier's Girl was made with her blessing, though she no longer speaks of Winchell publicly. Beautifully shot and acted, the film paints an effective portrait of a doomed love affair. Troy Gerrity (as Winchell) and Lee Pace (as Addams) have enormous onscreen chemistry. When they first seduce each other, to the tune of Still Thrives This Love by KD Lang, the screen nearly catches on fire. The sensuality they convey is almost embarrassing, as we, the viewers, peak in upon a very private moment.
Shawn Hatosy steals a few scenes as Justin, the virulently homophobic soldier who befriends Winchell, ultimately killing him. Justin's escalating rage at Winchell's love for Addams makes for a frightening visage. It's a classic portrait of homophobia: an allegedly straight man becomes pushed over the edge because he can't deal with the images of himself that he sees in Winchell.
Powerful viewing indeed.
An interesting post script to the film: When Troy Gerrity's mother, screen legend Jane Fonda, saw Soldier's Girl, she produced an all transgender production of the feminist play The Vagina Monologues. Calpernia Addams co-starred in that production.