The Oscar Speech I Wanted This Year: Mya Taylor from “Tangerine”

*This article first appeared in The Huffington Post

“I have a dream”
–Martin Luther King Jr.

“I should have been a great many things”
–Louisa May Alcott

“I want to play a superhero. I want to be a Bond girl. I want to play a man. I want to play a white woman.” —Taraji P. Henson

Mya Taylor. Photo courtesy of Mya Taylor.

I love the Oscars. Yes, the telecast is long and superficial, but the speeches (occasionally) remind us that movies are our dreams.
Actors talk about being transformed–both onscreen and in life–by the characters they play. (Hilary Swank’s acceptance speech for playing Brandon Teena–a transgender man who was brutally murdered–comes to mind, after which Swank became a spokesperson for the queer youth organization, The Hetrick-Martin Institute). And sometimes, actors whose bodies, or skin colors, or identities, we don’t often see in the limelight, take the stage. (Watch Hattie McDaniels accept the first Oscar ever won by a person of color–in 1939!–presented by actress Fay Bainter, who described the award as,”more than just a plaque of gold. It opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America – an America that we love, an America that almost alone in the world today, recognizes and pays tribute to those who give her their best, regardless of creed, race, or color,” followed by McDaniels herself calling it “a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future.”)

If movies are our collective dreams, they should inspire us to have the greatest American dream of all: the opportunity to be a great many things.

This is why so many of us are disheartened that, once again, the faces celebrated at the Oscars are all white; the nominated directors are all men (and Todd Haynes, the gay director of one of the year’s best films, Carol, which makes a great case for movies about women, is not one of them); and the passionate cries for diversity on screen over the years (e.g., hereherehere, and here) have not shaken Hollywood up enough to create or to cast more roles for actors who are not straight white men.

So I’ve chosen to celebrate what should be rather than complain about what is–77 years after Hattie McDaniels’ historic win. And to that end I commissioned a speech from the performer who moved me the most in 2015: Mya Taylor, from the critically acclaimed indie film, Tangerine.

Tangerine is an off-beat comedy that follows two transgender sex workers as they work a downtrodden Los Angeles intersection on Christmas Eve. It is a collaboration of director Sean Baker, and the two leading trans actresses, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Ms. Taylor, whom Mr. Baker met at an LGBT center near the film’s location. Mr. Baker was inspired to make a movie about this part of L.A., which is very different from the one we often see in movies. He says,”I thought there must be some incredible stories that take place on that corner.” And he was right.

The palpable chemistry between the leads at once references and transcends classic buddy films, transporting us beyond the limitations of gender or race. As Alexandra, Taylor effectively conveys a fierce survivor who is driven by her dreams. We get a glimpse of the life she could be living as she sings “Toyland” at a local club, bathed in a soft, glamorous, light that contrasts the gritty, sweaty, tangerine, hue of the streets she calls home. Scenes like this are what I love most about movies: the chance to be embodied by people whose stories are unsung.

2016-02-24-1456337832-1131255-1.jpgMya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

 At the same time I love seeing the same actors get to play a variety of stories and dreams. Hollywood at its best–beyond the crappy movies, discrimination, and damaging stereotypes–provides both a spotlight on marginalized people and the chance to see those same people inhabit a spectrum of roles. It’s fantastic to think that Viola Davis has not only played women severely restricted by their race–as in the two parts for which she was nominated for Oscars, Doubt and The Help–but that she has also portrayed lives that those characters could only dream of living. (Such as, Annalise Keating on the show, How to Get Away With Murder, for which Davis won an Emmy–a role of gravitas, charisma, and complexity that we typically associate with straight white men, e.g., James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, Jon Hamm as Don Draper, etc.)
That’s why I’m celebrating Mya Taylor during this year’s Oscars. Performances like hers open doors and move back walls and enable us all to embrace the whole of an America that we love. I hope to see her be a great many things in the future. And with that, I give you, Mya Taylor:

[The following “speech” is based on my interview with Ms. Taylor. If she delivered this on a stage, she’d be wearing, “something amazing, with my tits pushed up to the ceiling.” So please imagine this as you read.]

 When I was a kid I loved watching the Grammys (I was always a singer), and when someone I admired won, it was amazing. Because I thought, if that was me up there, I’d know that I worked hard for it and that it came from the heart.

“Tangerine” has changed my life.

I was nervous to play this part because I had just started my transition. I felt so unpretty. I didn’t look the way I wanted to. But I had to come out of those shades and present myself to the world. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a few things to get something better. I found it within myself to do it. I thought: “Ok, this is an opportunity to do something with your life for once. Make the best out of the experience. Make the most of it.”

I didn’t know how many people would see the film. It’s touching to attend screenings, to go on stage and catch all the energy of the fans. I’ve had people come up to me and tell me how touching it is, the friendship. They like when I give my wig to Kiki. (And that part was acting, let me tell you, I’m not about to take off my 22-inch hair to put on another bitches head…) But I love to meet people who are moved by it. They like when I sing. My character wanted to sing so badly that she paid to sing. And who knows why the club manager made her pay. Does he make everybody pay? Maybe he felt she wouldn’t be good enough, or he didn’t like that she was trans. But whatever the case was, she paid, because she loved singing so much.

(And that part was acting too, because, they paid me to sing in this movie…) I’ve been training as a singer since I was a kid. I guess I was preparing for this my whole life, though I didn’t know it.

I don’t know if young people should see Tangerine, there’s a lot of sex in it, but if girls on the streets see it, I hope they know they’re not alone. I hope they see that I got out of sex work and it’s possible for them too.

I want to play lots of different roles now. I’d love to be in a scary movie. Or a drama, so I could be mean–like Monique in Precious–cuz I’m really nice in real life. Or maybe a lawyer, with a client who has a difficult case, and maybe someone’s trying to kill me because they know I’m gonna win.

In addition to acting, Tangerine has also given me the opportunity to produce my own T.V. show! It’s about how trans people go through life, and what I have gone through. There will be a variety of characters. And I won’t be the lead, we’ll hire a person who is transitioning to be the star. I’ve already had that opportunity, why not let someone else come in. That’s what it’s all about, right?

I feel very humble right now, and blessed. The people I work with really listen to me. And I’m so thankful for all of their support in helping me get here. Especially Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch for inviting me to be a collaborator and not just a performer. Mark and Jay Duplass, Magnolia Pictures. My manager, Allan Mandell. My agent, Joanne Wiles. My hair and makeup artist, Christina Cullinski. My very first singing instructor, Nick, who taught me to sing opera!, and to train my voice, which I do every day. God. And my man.

At the end of the day, I’m so lucky to come home to a quiet, normal, life.


Into the White White Woods

This piece first appeared on Mark O’Connell, LCSW’s column Quite Queerly, and then again on The Huffington Post.

I can’t wait to see Into the Woods with my family on Christmas Day. I’ve loved this Stephen Sondheim musical since I was twelve. And yet something about the lavish-looking film adaptation gives me pause: the all-star cast is all white. All. White.

Half of my family members with whom I’ll be watching the movie have brown skin, and though they are all eager to see fairy tale characters who are familiar to them, played by sparkly actors who are also familiar to them, no one on the big screen will look like them. This is something they are used to and have always been. And that is too bad.

Also too bad is the feeling that I’m not sure I’ll be brave enough to bring this up during our holiday movie night. I mean, who wants to risk being “Debbie Downer” on Christmas?

I’m sure I’m not alone here — in my ambivalence about the film, or in my hesitation to bring it up.

But what better time to address racism, and the ill-effects of unchecked systems of power and privilege, than when we are seated comfortably in our bubbles of power and privilege? A time during which we celebrate fantastic images of who we are — or at least who we dream ourselves to be — projected onto an enormous screen? Yes, we risk sobering up the party for a sec, but we just might also inspire each other to think. To discuss. And to become aware of how even the most subtle forms of bias get absorbed into all of our heads and impact all of our behaviors — behaviors that range from telling jokes based on prejudice, to more explicit forms of discrimination, to horrific acts of violence.

Following the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, we as a country have expressed more reactions, opinions, theories and curiosities about race, injustice and our systemic failures to protect all of our people, than perhaps ever before. Dialogue of this kind is crucial to foster necessary changes to our systems, but by the time our people are murdered unjustly it is too late to make effective changes. There is little we can do at that point but grieve, mourn, be outraged and cast blame. Our observations about racial inequality might be more effective when we are not in states of trauma and grief, and instead when we are celebrating our powers and privileges with our families — especially those members of our families who are white, or have an abundance of social advantages, or for whom social injustice may not blip on the radar until someone is brutally, unjustifiably murdered.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that problems of systemic racism can be solved in a movie theater. But I do think that sharing observations about the casting of our movies is a great place to start. Especially for those of us who want to stop contributing to the problem and instead take a meaningful step toward healing and change.

After all, movies are our dreams, and the images we see on screen impact how we think and how we behave. According to SAG AFTRA, the union representing all on-screen performers in America, “There is no other medium as capable of affecting human behavior and thought as films.” We as audiences can be more aware of the faces we see on screen and demand to see more faces that reflect us, our families and friends, and the American scene as it truly is, and as we dream it to be.

This is especially true of our fantasy films, like Into the Woods, which represent the farthest reaches of our dreamiest dreams and have more room than most for diverse casting possibilities. Let’s ask ourselves: would it really damage the story if the Witch or Cinderella was a person of color? The talent certainly exists. We could all benefit from seeing the magnificent performances of six-time Tony award-winner Audra MacDonald or Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson on our big screens. (Of course, some people would inevitably disagree with this observation. I wrote about this topic two years ago when the first Hobbit film came out, featuring an entirely white cast, and I received angry emails from Tolkien “experts” for weeks. These self-styled fantasy wonks ranged from those of the white supremacist variety to liberal-minded friends of mine — all of whom were white, and male — who shared elaborate explanations for why all of the cast members “needed” to be white, and why such a need was absolutely not racist logic. I wonder now if the Cinderella “experts” will react to this post with thorough explanations of the casting choices made for Into the Woods.)

But I digress. The point is that, in most cases, casting with diversity in mind does not compromise storytelling. In many cases it enhances it. It also provides audiences opportunities for identifying and empathizing with a greater variety of people, with a greater variety of faces and histories, than we are currently allowed. We can demand more of this in our entertainment. Fairy tales are not the only opportunities to cast actors of color, as Sony Studios is currently proving with their remake of Annie. Apparently producers can cast a black actor in the role of an iconic white comic book character — when they are not sitting around sending reductive emails about whether Obama likes “black” movies — and it can work. (I have not yet heard the Annie “experts” threaten to picket screenings of the film.) Think of the great effect such a casting choice will have on all the girls and boys across America who will see a character on screen who looks like them.

And while we’re on the subject of movie producers, they could all benefit by taking a page from the great American theater director Liesl Tommy, who constantly finds innovative ways to put actors of all shapes, colors and sizes on stage to great effect. Her inspired casting choices serve the stories she tells, emphasizing their relevance to modern audiences and expanding everyone’s palette of people with whom to identify. Her contemporized production of Les Miserables at the Dallas Theater Center, for example, featured a diverse cast and garnered rave reviews from critics and audiences alike.

But let’s get back to the children. The musical Into the Woods leaves its audience with a song called “Children Will Listen.” Here are some of the lyrics:

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn

The children I will watch the movie with this week will see a fairy tale about white people. What will they learn? I suppose that depends on whether or not people like me choose to say something about it.