As a transgender person whose social circle is comprised almost entirely of other trans people, I often forget how the world at large can treat us. And surprisingly, there are few harsher reminders than tuning in to the latest trans documentary only to realize that, yet again, the film is not about uplifting transgender voices, but about peeling back the sensitive, intersectional layers of trans folks, about reducing us to buzzwords, about telling us how misguided we are, or even about making us into palatable education engineered to show cisgender people that we freaks aren't so different from them after all.
There is an exhaustive number of films like that. MAC Cosmetics' More Than T is not one of them.
The upcoming documentary, which was executive produced by MAC and will air June 23 on Showtime, not only spotlights the lives of seven trans people from diverse backgrounds, it celebrates them without putting them under the cisgender microscope.
Stars Joanna Cifredo, Ti’aira Halsey, Gizelle Messina, Octavia Lewis, Reverend Louis Mitchell, Charles Whitewolf, and Mia Yamamoto are each allotted no more than eight minutes or so of film, but each of them is so clearly comfortable with the More Than T production team that the revealing snapshots feel intimate, yet not exploitative. This is a film that says, "Here we are," not, "Here is why we are."
There's a reason for that, aside from the truly sparkling interviewees: More Than T's crew is led by Silas Howard, a trans man whose portfolio includes This Is Us and Transparent. The film was also co-produced by trans woman Jen Richards of the Emmy-nominated web series Her Story.
MAC gave the team nearly unlimited control over the project — a vital part of why More Than T is so authentic and welcoming for a trans audience. Howard tells Bustle he too is often disappointed by the vivisectional nature of many cis-directed trans documentaries.
"With the media so focused on trans lives, often it can feel reductive, the thing you’re using for visibility," he says. "We wanted to kind of battle that and show that, yes, [transgender people] have this lens with which we view the world. We’ve been in a larger world for a long time. We’ve been here as your minister, your lawyer, your sister."
He continues, "In a way we went in interest-first, instead of trans-first, where we focus on explaining ourselves, because there’s an inherent power dynamic about having to explain yourself, like you don’t fit in. [The trans] community that has the most vulnerable intersection of our society — racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia."
Finding people who exist in those intersectional margins wasn't a challenge for Howard and Richards, who had the benefit of casting from within their own community.
Richards tells Bustle, "We wanted to focus on people that weren’t well-known to the public. We were looking through our circles for people who were just kind of extraordinary...and represented a unique intersection that the other subjects didn’t."
MAC also had a hand in seeking interviewees; the company put out a casting call asking for volunteers from its large pool of transgender employees. From those employees, Howard and Richards narrowed it down to Messina, a MAC makeup expert who tells Bustle she's "the luckiest girl in the world" because of how supportive her MAC family is.
Despite that, though, she wasn't immediately sure she wanted to take part in More Than T. "[The casting call] came across my desk, if you will, and I looked it over, and it felt…like a situation that would be extremely revealing, so I sat on the opportunity to send in my information, and literally it was the night before it all closed, where I finally had that ah-ha! moment where I thought my story would be beneficial," she explains.
She adds, "I knew that in my moment, I had to be authentic. Silas and the whole crew ensured that I was comfortable, that I was in my truth. I don’t think a better scenario could present itself. How much I was celebrated just by being present."
Celebration in presence is an apt description of More Than T as a whole. The film highlights everyday trans people going about their everyday trans lives, existing in identity intersections. They share with the audience their hobbies, their jobs, their struggles, their stories, but not in a way that makes them — makes us — out to be tigers in a box, entertaining the masses as we hide our sharp teeth and our strength.
The team behind this documentary, from MAC to Howard to Richards to every person on the set who made interviewees feel comfortable, did what should be done far more often: They filmed without an agenda.
More Than T is not here to teach cis people how to empathize with trans folks. It's not here to make trans people palatable. It's not here to make concessions, or to explain. It's here because transgender people are already here. We've been here all along.