Darleen Ortega| 5/22/2019, 7 a.m.
A transgender man’s path to parenthood is explored in “Seahorse, ” a new film that will deepen your understanding of trans identity and the meaning of parenthood and fatherhood (left) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as a woman on the run in “Fast Color," a new movie focusing on three generations of black women and the powerful gifts they bring to the world along with the dangers and struggles they face (photos by Tribeca Film Festival and Jacob Yakob/Codeblack Films, respectively).
As I write this, I’m headed to the Seattle International Film Festival, and I’m sure I’ll come back with a host of film recommendations. But before that happens, I don’t want to miss mentioning two films that you might otherwise overlook, and that I caught on limited theatrical runs.
“Seahorse” played at QDoc in Portland a couple of weeks ago, and so rocked my world that it is a contender for my list of the best films of 2019. It follows the journey to parenthood taken by Freddie McConnell, who, as a trans man, is one of a limited number of human males who can, like male seahorses, undergo pregnancy. Many things make that complicated, of course, not least being other humans who feel entitled to an opinion on Freddie’s reproductive capacity. But also, in addition to all the usual physical and hormonal challenges of pregnancy, Freddie must also temporarily suspend testosterone therapy, which is critical to his wellbeing in ways those of us who are not trans can scarcely understand.
In what turns out to be a characteristic display of self-awareness, Freddie, a journalist, sensed the importance of telling his story well and also the importance of enlisting someone else to help him do it. He chose well in director Jeanie Finlay, who spoke at the screening I attended. She is a sensitive co-traveler through a very difficult journey that deepened immeasurably my sense of trans identity and the meaning of parenthood and fatherhood. Freddie’s candor and lucidity—and also his increasing silence through the most difficult parts of his experience of pregnancy—shed light on so many things I had not understood before, and helped me to be appropriately curious about things I had not thought to notice.
Among them were the ways in which our fear and assumptions keep us from appropriate curiosity—which requires us to hold our assumptions much more loosely than we are prone to do. At one point Freddie attends a dinner in which a group of women attempt to support his journey through pregnancy with remarkably little awareness of or curiosity about how their experience cannot possibly be the same as his. At another, he is with relatives who quickly turn to anger at him for simply staking out some space for his own truth. Freddie’s experience also made me reflect on how pregnant women actually do experience some similar dynamics.
Freddie is blessed with a mother, Esme, who balances his picture of fatherhood with an inspirational picture of motherhood; her support throughout is so astute that he actually wants her there at the birth of his child. We are also privileged to be there, and it is one of the most moving things I have ever witnessed. At this birth, as well as many other moments in the film, I felt that I was witnessing what it means to be embodied in a whole new way. I am forever changed. The film will air on the BBC and is in negotiation for further distribution.
“Fast Color” had a short run in Portland and I almost missed it. I literally saw its last show and chose it over two other films headed out of town because it told a story of three generations of black women. (When do we get that opportunity?) This slow burn of a film paid off in the end—-and what a pay-off! I’m going to offer some slight spoilers to intrigue you enough to give this film a chance.
It’s the story of Ruth (the ever-skilled Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman on the run in a dystopian future in which America has gone eight years without rain. This film carries showing-not-telling to some extremes, so it is awhile before we understand that she is on the run because of seizures that she feels coming on but can’t control, and which provoke earthquakes. She is on the run because she’s dangerous, and also because the government would like to exploit her. Fellow women of color, does this provoke any sense of recognition?
She returns home to her mother (an excellent Lorraine Toussaint) and a daughter whom she left behind for her own safety. And we come to realize eventually that superpowers run in this family of black women, but they have learned to hide them because the world is not safe for them if people know—and some, like Ruth find them difficult to manage. (Again, fellow women of color, do you feel a stir of recognition?) How they have handled their power, and a shift that happens in the end in recognition of how much the world needs them, is the payoff that made this film exactly what I needed on the hard day I watched it.
I later heard an interview in which Mbatha-Raw indicated that the director, Julia Hart, who wrote the screenplay with her husband, Jordan Horowitz, had not written these characters specifically as black women. I’m not sure what to make of that; to me the story derives its resonance from the fact they are black, so who knows how that all shook out and what angels guided Hart to the choices she ultimately made. All I know is, benefitting from excellent performances from two black women who perhaps carry a lot of knowing in their bones, this film conveys some things that are deeply true about the powerful gifts that women of color bring to the world, the dangers and struggles they face in bearing those gifts, and the stakes for all of us in them finding a way to share their power. Watch for it to stream online, hopefully soon.
Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her movie blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.