When Will 'Free CeCe' Premiere? Laverne Cox On How The Story Influenced Her 'Orange Is The New Black' Character

Every day when TV actress Laverne Cox goes to work on Orange is the New Black, she thinks of CeCe McDonald, a trans woman who was imprisoned in a men's jail in 2012, despite her gender identity. Her harrowing story is detailed in the Cox-produced documentary Free CeCe, which premieres in early 2016. During her TimesTalks interview with New York Times' senior culture editor Erik Piepenburg on Aug. 25, Cox spoke about Free CeCe and how important it was for her to tell this story.

In 2011, McDonald claimed she and four of her friends were threatened outside a bar by a man named Dean Schmitz and two of his friends in what she claimed was a racist, transphobic attack. McDonald's friend Larry Tyaries Thomas later described some of the comments he remembered Schmitz's group allegedly saying like, "Oh, look at the tranny over there, look at that tranny," and McDonald claims they were all called the n-word. McDonald later claimed she tried to walk away but that Schmitz allegedly slashed her face with a bottle, and, from there, a fight broke out between all parties. In the scuffle, Schmitz was stabbed (he later died of his wounds), for which McDonald confessed, the police report stated.

McDonald later wrote in a letter to the Star Tribune that confessing was "a big mistake [for] trying to cover up for one of my friends who actually did it. I didn't know exactly who, but I knew someone was defending me." But, McDonald ended up taking a plea bargain for second-degree manslaughter, with a drastically reduced sentence of 41 months, and was sent to a men's prison.

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It's all too common for transgender people to have their identity disregarded completely when they are sentenced to jail. The same thing happened to Chelsea Manning a few years ago. Although McDonald was released in January 2014, her story served to incite conversation about the right to self-defense, how transgender people are treated in prison, and the every day lives of transgender individuals, who are often subjected to verbal attacks when just walking down the street like, McDonald described.

It's a struggle that Cox identifies with, saying at the TimesTalks event that she knows she's lucky that never happened to her. "It's just really real," the actress told Piepenburg about the film. "It's not lost on me that just because I'm in a very privileged position now, like three years ago I was barely paying rent ... so many times I've been on the street and it could have gone [badly]."

The Free CeCe film tells this all-too-common story of abuse, harassment, and unfair treatment and includes Cox's interview with McDonald while she was still incarcerated. When the trailer was played at the TimesTalks event, Cox grew misty-eyed thinking about McDonald and her struggles in jail, and in every day life as a transgender woman. "Why do I get to be the one living my dreams when so many of my sisters don't?" she said tearfully in the movie.

The actress didn't speak on McDonald much at the TimesTalks interview, because she was simply too emotional about it and was having a hard time talking. But, she did leave the audience with this, "CeCe is a survivor, and her gift for survival was a prison sentence ... [this movie] is a labor of love and hopefully we'll illuminate some of these issues."

Cox told Piepenburg she thinks of McDonald every day she's on the OITNB set, and she's striving to use her platform to make a difference for the transgender community.

But, there's so much work left to be done, and, come Free Cece's premiere in 2016, learning about and watching her story can be a great first step.

Images: Courtesy Matthew Arnold (2)