Rarely do independent films that tackle transgender issues receive mainstream attention. Even more rare are films of any sort that interweave Latino identity in the context of a transgender story. “Gun Hill Road,” the debut film by Bronx, N.Y.-native Rashaad Ernesto Green has defied expectations on both counts, becoming not only a run-a-way success on the film festival circuit but also securing a rarity for independent LGBT cinema: a theatrical release.
“Gun Hill Road” is set, as the title suggests, on Gun Hill Road, one of the major thoroughfares that cuts through the Bronx. It tells the story of Vanessa, a young person transitioning from male gender identity, as Michael, to female gender identity. Vanessa is played by transgender actor Harmony Santana. After three years in prison, Vanessa’s father Enrique, played by Esai Morales, comes home and is unable to understand how and why his son would want to live as a woman.
Enrique, raised in a traditional Puerto Rican cultural background, displays his machismo as he makes increasingly dramatic efforts to try and hold on to the Michael he knew before prison. Vanessa’s mother Angela, played by Judy Reyes, balances out Enrique’s rage by supporting Vanessa’s transition despite her own struggles with it.
The film is most resonant as a coming-of-age drama, buoyed by Santana’s vulnerable and emotionally complex performance. But it is also a deeply felt family story that connects Latino identity to transgender identity in a groundbreaking way. While the political and social commentary is sometimes subtle and nuanced, the overall theme of love and acceptance for all people, especially LGBT individuals within communities of color, pervades the story.
I sat down with Green and Reyes to talk about the overlap between race, sexuality and gender that their film explores.
One of the most noticeable things about the film is the setting. Was the film always going to be set in the Bronx?
Green: Yes. It was always the Bronx. Gun Hill Road is an actual street in the Bronx. I was born in the Bronx and my parents grew up there. The family [the film] was inspired by was a Bronx family.
And Judy, you were also born and raised in the Bronx?
On a street perpendicular to Gun Hill Road. My relationship to the Bronx contributed to what you see on screen. I was like “I’m going home.” I felt I was born to play this part because I was extremely familiar with the surroundings. I had three different addresses in the Bronx until I was 26.
How did you decide to pick a transgender character?
Green: It was based on a family I knew who went through a very similar situation. The child was transitioning and, as in the film, the family deteriorates over the course of a few years due to the father’s inability to accept the child. As an outsider and an artist, I wanted to make a film that spoke to their experiences and represent how two individuals struggled to come together because of their differences.
Judy, how did you deal with the transgender storyline of the film? Did you have to do extra work to understand transgender issues?
I came a month early to visit transgender and LGBT organizations. I interviewed moms with transgender kids. I actually developed a relationship with Harmony’s mom and spoke to her at length. I established a relationship with some of Rashaad’s people to grasp an understanding of trans issues.
When making the film, did you feel stories of transgender characters weren’t found enough in film?
Green: It’s definitely infrequent. But especially a teenage transgender youth in the Latino community. We have never ever seen them before [in theaters]. We’ve never seen their struggle. Here in New York, we do see gay and transgender youth of color all of the time, but we never see the struggles they have to face in their families. It is the responsibility of artists in our community to address these issues.
Related to this, who do you think is the audience of the film? Who do you think should see the film?
Green: Honestly I feel like most people will get something out of this. Of course the LGBT community has been extremely supportive, but the audience has been mainstream. Even with these audiences, it hits an emotional core about family. I definitely want to address the Latino community, of course, but I feel like a lot of people can identify. The people who I want to open their minds and hearts are not necessarily progressive.
Reyes: I think the message of the film is one everyone can relate to it. It’s familiar to me because I know the setting is where I came from. I’m a born-and-raised Dominican from the Bronx, but I think it’s more a coming-of-age tale from Harmony’s character. From Esai’s character, the film is about trying to find love and acceptance and having to understand. It’s about letting go.
I think my biggest concern is getting Latinos and African-Americans to see it. But I know that my community tends to be escapist. They want romantic comedies and action movies. But I want to start conversations. I’d rather they see it and be pissed off.
While the father’s character in the film displays typical masculine or maschismo values, the mother is much more accepting of Vanessa. Why is this the case? And do you think this reflects a divide in the Latino community between men and women?
Green: I guess I wanted to play with the idea of a mother’s love for their child. Despite hang ups over sexuality, there is a different relationship that exists between a mother and child. But that’s not to say that the love from the father isn’t to be commended. It’s just a different relationship. The father might look at his child as representing him. What the child’s choices are, are a reflection of the father’s.
Do you think this is unique to Latino culture?
Green: Of course I can speak to the Latino culture because I’m Latino. But I feel these circumstances, and that character, can be found in every single culture. In every single culture there is a version of masculinity that is macho.
Reyes: One of the experiences I used most in preparing for the film was the fact I recently had a baby and could connect to the feeling of, “oh, that’s my baby!” Nobody was going to get between me and my kid, which is what you notice immediately in the film. There is a special bond between mother and child I wanted to convey.
Rashaad, you said in your artist statement that youth are more accepting of LGBT individuals. But how do you explain the increasing visibility of anti-gay violence in New York City and the fact that violence, especially against trans-youth of color, isn’t going away?
Green: I do think a younger generation is more open-minded than the generation before it, especially, for example, in New York with marriage equality passing. There’s going to be a whole generation of children who have never known a time where people couldn’t get married. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t still have a violent opposition toward difference.
I think the film will help people see and understand people that they didn’t necessarily know about before. So much of violence is done from a place of fear and not knowing the victim, thinking they are crazy or weird or strange. But when we’re able to express [violence] in art and show it in cinema, we can see into the lives, for example, of a trans person and show they’re a human being just like you and I. From this, you’ll begin to identity, relate, and empathize with these human beings.
So you think storytelling is an effective way of educating anybody about trans or LGBT issues?
Green: Art is a necessary component in our society and our world to address any issue of oppression or injustice.
But what happens when voices oppose these stories? The first person that comes to mind is Ruben Diaz, the State Senator from the Bronx, who is very anti-LGBT. Do you anticipate a clash between the story you’re telling and the more traditional culture that has been in place for a long time?
Green: Sure, there’s the old guard. But I don’t necessarily fault the old generation. We were taught a certain belief system, a lot of it coming from the islands and religion. Because we’re becoming more and more aware of other people–we’re not the only people in the world anymore–you might see a clash. Of course I hope to open some minds and hearts in that older generation.
If I am unsuccessful with this film, we do progress as a society. It’s just a matter of time. Eventually people will become much more understanding because they’re going to become aware of LGBT individuals.
“Gun Hill Road” will have its debut theatrical release in New York City from Aug. 5 to 11. It will then go to Los Angeles from Aug. 12 to 18 and San Francisco from Aug. 19 to 25. A complete listing of theaters is available on the film’s website.
Kyle Bella is a regular Colorlines.com contributor based in Philadelphia, PA. He also covers LGBTQ political issues for TruthOut.org and Philadelphia Weekly.