‘Framing Agnes’ review: Docudrama brings trans past to life
The docudrama Framing Agnes is a fascinating, multidimensional, mosaic-like look at transgender life from the 1950s to the present day, interpreted by – and by – a group of transmasculine and transfeminine performers and creatives and a uniquely impressive academic.
Director Chase Joynt and his co-writer Morgan M. Page structure this short but revealing film around unearthed transcripts from a UCLA gender studies clinic conducted by professor and sociologist Harold Garfinkel in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He interviewed a range of trans men and women about who they were – emotionally, physically, sexually – and how they got there. (The Document is a feature-length extension of Joynt’s 2019 short film of the same name, co-directed by Kristen Schilt.)
The most famous of Garfinkel’s conversations was with the pseudonymous Agnes (portrayed in reenactments by multimedia artist and TV producer Zackary Drucker), a pioneering trans woman who made artful use (some would say “tricked the system”) of the study room access to then. elusive gender-affirming healthcare.
Over time, Agnes became a transgender icon, as did Christine Jorgensen, who can be seen in archival footage dating back to 1952, when she became the first American known for undergoing (now known as) gender confirmation surgery — and , as mentioned here, was the most famous woman in the world that year.
The film cleverly recreates a retro-style black and white TV talk show, with Joynt portraying Garfinkel as the show’s interrogating host. In addition to questioning self-possessed secretary Agnes, “Garfinkel” interviews other trans people like Georgia (played by “Pose” actress Angelica Ross), a black Southern woman; Barbara (writer and actress Jen Richards), the ambassador for the LA community; working-class Denny (TV and film director Silas Howard); isolated writer Henry (poet and writer Max Wolf Valerio); and 15-year-old Jimmy (writer Stephen Ira, 30-year-old son of Warren Beatty and Annette Bening). The cast effectively, if at times a bit self-consciously, uses Garfinkel’s original UCLA transcripts to reproduce these probing discussions that intelligently never progress beyond their welcome.
The cast also beautifully reconstructs parts of their characters’ world outside of the gender study. Speaking as their true selves, they engage in candid conversations with Joynt about the complexities and realities of trans life and their own unique journeys. Ross’ perspective on how black women have so often been the face of the transgender movement and yet remain the most vulnerable is particularly revealing.
The disturbing paradox of visibility versus invisibility, particularly for trans women of color, is further illustrated by a clip from Katie Couric’s awkward 2014 television interview with transgender actors Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera from Orange Is the New Black. Couric’s invasive questioning prompted Cox to tell her that “preoccupation with the transition and the operation objectifies trans people.” (Lesson apparently learned, a few years later Couric delved deeper and more respectfully into the subject in the National Geographic Channel documentary Gender Revolution.)
The highlight of the film, however, is an interview with Jules Gill-Peterson, a transfeminine historian and author of Histories of the Transgender Child. She consistently delivers deeply insightful and articulate commentary that reflects and expands on what Joynt and his cast discuss about both transgender history and the way trans people navigate contemporary society. She’s a great speaker.
A not dissimilar cinematic approach was taken by Joynt in his fine 2020 documentary No Ordinary Man, which spotlighted transmasculine jazz musician and bandleader of the 1940s and 1950s, Billy Tipton. Although this film focused on one main character, it also employed a vibrant cast of trans voices to bring Tipton’s compelling story to life.
“Framing Agnes” continues Joynt’s vital and original exploration of transculture and is a strong counterpart to “No Ordinary Man”.
Duration: 1 hour 15 minutes
To play: Lammle NoHo 7, North Hollywood
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-12-14/review-framing-agnes-docu-drama ‘Framing Agnes’ review: Docudrama brings trans past to life