Registering the Registry 2019: Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, Kimberly Perice directs Hilary Swank to an Oscar with her 1999 dramatization of the Brandon Teena murder in the highest-profile trans man tale in American cinema, Boys Don’t Cry! Let’s see just how well she handles the matter below.
We must know and ensure these things are known: Brandon Teena was a trans man murdered for being a trans man. Born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, subject to an unsupportive home environment under his mother as he gradually discovered himself and began presenting as male in public, brought to a point where he left his home city at age 21 to start a new life in Falls City several miles south, where he began a relationship with 18–year old Lana Tisdel. Trouble with the law and incarceration in the women’s prison revealed Brandon’s birth-assigned gender to his new friends and colleagues, which led to his exposure, assault, and rape by John L. Lotter and Marvin Thomas “Tom” Nissen during and after a 1993 Christmas Eve party. Brandon’s report of the rape to Sheriff Charles B. Laux only resulted in the sheriff grilling Brandon over the supposed dishonesty of his presenting as male when he was “really” a woman with no attempt at counsel or comfort, and ended with the rape kit missing and the perpetrators still free. A week later, on December 31st, 1993, Lotter and Nissen broke into the home of Lisa Lambert, Brandon’s place of residence at the time, and murdered Teena, Lambert, and Phillip DeVine, a disabled black man who was dating Tisdel’s sister, leaving only Lambert’s toddler alive. Reports of the murder would frequently neglect to mention DeVine whatsoever, as well as deadname Brandon, leading to a culture of reporting on the case which focused on him as a self-hating lesbian woman who chose to live as a man in purposeful defiance of gender norms, including the popular and widespread article by Donna Minkowitz for The Village Voice. Though Minkowitz has since retracted and apologized for her mischaracterizing statements, though his mother has come to accept his importance to the LGBTQ+ community, and though the world at large now knows who Brandon Teena was as well as the world can know a person who perished at 21 nearly thirty years ago, it must be noted through all this: Brandon Teena’s headstone still bears the marker, “Teena R. Brandon. Daughter, Sister, and Friend.” Brandon Teena died because he was shunned and othered for his gender, and the violence against his person continues through this set-in-stone deadnaming decades after his death.
It must also be noted that though Kimberly Peirce’s 1999 film about Brandon’s final days, Boys Don’t Cry, endeavors to use Brandon’s proper name and pronouns throughout the film, the endcard marking Brandon’s birth and death dates is transcribed as, “Brandon Teena (Teena Brandon)”. We must register Peirce was drawn to Brandon Teena’s story because she identified with him as a lesbian who chose to live as a man rather than as a man who was a man, register her scouring the talent pool for an unknown to play Brandon was almost exclusively focused on cis female actors, register the story of her film places an enormous emphasis on Brandon as a pathological liar who cannot help but craft falsehoods even when the truth would better serve. We must understand her film, like so many other takes on the crime from its day, omits the person of Phillip DeVine entirely, yet finds so much importance in the brief relationship between Lana and Brandon as to place Lana in situations the real person never experienced, including intimate sexual contact long after the real Tisdel reported she broke off such a relationship with Brandon, and witnessing the murders firsthand when she was nowhere near the scene of the crime. These despite neglecting to obtain permission to use Tisdel’s name and likeness, and this despite according a degree of fictional distance towards Lisa Lambert by changing the character’s name to Candace over far less egregious breaks from reality. We must note the film’s occasional tendency to focus on Brandon’s body in vulnerable positions, be it a scene centered around his binding and preparing for the day, his assault and rape, or the camera panning across Hillary Swank’s nude form in the shower in the aftermath; not necessarily damaging or misguided choices on their own, but collectively worrying in the context of a film which does not extend total respect towards the legitimacy of his gender identity, and which again turns so centrally around the matter of Brandon as a liar.
All of this we must know and internalize if we are to discuss Boys Don’t Cry properly, for I will argue Boys Don’t Cry is an impactful, technically and artistically moving piece of cinema, yet one whose connection to a real life tragedy requires we keep its limitations in mind. Brandon Teena was a man, as dictated by what felt and was right for his life, he lost his life because those around him refused to accept this, and neither the headstone carved from rock nor the headstone printed on celluloid can wholly respect this, nor can the latter wholly respect the lives of others connected to Brandon’s case. Regardless intent, these failings restrict the impact of Boys Don’t Cry’s messaging, but they should not restrict its import or our attempts to analyze. Understand this, and we can host our discussion properly.
There is a beautiful film here, courtesy of cinematographer Jim Denault, whose work we’ll also see in next week’s feature. Before his lens, Falls City becomes a transient place, defined by nights of all-encompassing darkness concealing the great expanse of featureless plains and the occasional precipitous drop just out of sight. The shots he and Peirce construct are often properly lit, almost always by what should prove harsh artificial lights, all convenience store fluorescence and and inadequate car interior lights and floodlights from high up on factory walls, the sort of sickly, unearthly lighting that should turn the location into a glaring, inescapable spotlight. By some trick of the wiring, or focus, or maybe simply the mood Peirce’s actors create, however, there’s a softness to these nighttime escapades, an occasionally ethereal air of bathing in a spotlight all for you out on the borderland where nobody knows who you are and nobody can judge. It’s the kind of lighting which makes a braindead truck rodeo seem the highlight of your year, a chase down a lonely dust-choked back road an endless run across a constantly moving patch into black eternity, an awkward first sexual encounter on a grassy hillside an intimate connection capable of strengthening a bond against all assault. Compared to the weak, flattening light of day, the nights feel liberating, just you and other loose, wild souls throwing all hell and sense to the wind to be as brilliantly as you can manage. And if the spotlight ever grows restrictive or tiresome, you can cast your eyes to the horizon and dream, dream of lights spinning and blurring to infinity as time loses all meaning, and the clouds and cars and stars streak across the sky. Sure, it’s a go-nowhere burnout’s town, but anyone would want to try a run into those Midwest winter fields if it meant feeling as Brandon does when things are going well.
Except things aren’t going well, are they? In the high moments, when he’s accepted for who he says he is and can hang with Lana (Chloë Sevigny), John (Peter Sarsgaard), Tom (Brendan Sexton III), Candace (Lecy Goranson), and Kate (Allison Folland) as an equal, he can see and know and share in the hardscrabbled kind of knucklehead, overly-affectionate love and friendship they’ve built over the years. Only from the jump, it’s clear this isn’t the only thing fueling their relationship — when things flag, and the situation gets a little stressful, everyone’s ready to blow their top and blame someone for ruining everything by not doing enough or pushing too far or having a run in with the law years ago. Well before anyone learns Brandon’s not the brother to a famous model on a hitchhiking trip to Graceland, Memphis, and Tennessee, you can detect the affection is highly conditional, premised on everyone in their circle being exactly what they appear to be with no deviation from the norm under any circumstance. John and Tom in particular exude this air, dominant personalities who usually get their way with sly, coercive talk and the implicit threat of violence should the situation slip their fingers. As the group’s de facto ringleader, John is prone to treating Brandon like his newest student in living life on the edge, whispering instructions into his ear as they flee the police and make dangerous maneuvers in the blinding dark, only to let his rage flare when Brandon follows his own conscious and stops, abandoning the entire group in the middle of nowhere as punishment for a perceived failure. Of their number, only Lana ever seems willing to take Brandon as he is without question while wanting to know know more about the true him instead of what she finds convenient or comfortable, before and after his secrets are outed, and even then she’s readily subject to the domineering behavior and social pressure all around her, incapable of actually expressing such feelings when the knives are brought to bear.
Avoidance thereby becomes Brandon’s watchword. He cannot fully commit to a life in Falls City, not if he has to be plain to understand on the surface as the day is clear AND capable of withstanding potential intense scrutiny at the drop of a hat, and he cannot bring himself to face the the charges awaiting him for petty crimes back in Lincoln. There’s nowhere to go, nobody to turn to or lean on, and the one person who might’ve had his back at the movie’s open, his cousin Lonny (Matt McGrath) refuses to harbor him because the fuckers pounding on his trailer door every night screaming about how they’ll kill Brandon for screwing their sister is too much hassle. Visible or invisible, there’s claws closing in on every side, only a question of whether the law or John will snatch Brandon before he can split town, maybe with Lana, maybe not. You get into this mindset where all actions seem equally destructive, and total inaction only leaves you vulnerable to a quicker strike, so the only thing that seems remotely feasible is to throw yourself back into it, ignore the danger signs, enjoy the company while it lasts and pray an exit reveals itself before it all detonates. The way Swank plays him, I think Brandon knows skipping his court dates and continuing to fraternize with an obviously unstable lot is risky verging on fatal, yet what else is there for it? Only other path leads towards the horizon, and while it’s enchanting to see with fresh eyes and watch the whirlwind of the world at work, it’s awful dark out there on the horizon. Besides, the last trip beyond the skyline only brought him here.
So it is the film’s roughest passages arrive, and I feel I must advise the reader, if they have not seen Boys Don’t Cry before, they are immensely taxing. In spite of having watched the movie myself around two-and-a-half years ago, experiencing it all again — John and Tom alternating between buddy-buddy affect and fist-about-neck aggression in trying to reveal Brandon’s “real” sex, the intense up-close rape intercut with the sheriff violating Brandon anew with inappropriate questioning that only drudges up memories of the event and invalidate his person, the shift in how characters view and speak to Brandon once they believe him a liar, the climactic murder of screaming and begging and crying in the semidark — proved an immense mental and possibly physical toll. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rough, cramped, exhausted way I’ve been in all day while dabbling on this piece is a direct result of seeing and feeling too intensely without adequate kindness towards myself afterwards. Of everything inducted into the Registry in 2019, the third act hits like a cement truck with cut brakes plowing through a mountainside, easily the most harrowing sequence filmed and cut in this class. To watch it is to experience a measure of the violence and intolerance yourself, share in the sudden loss of trust and community as everyone turns against Brandon, offering no quarter and ensuring every step is a reminder of how the ill-informed and hateful see you. It hurts to watch and reflect on, and I must warn against watching if you don’t think you can stand it or provide yourself the softness and comfort and love necessary to recover in the aftermath. From my reading, even Sexton couldn’t get through his part of the filming process without breaking down in tears — don’t walk into this unprepared is all I ask.
In the section on the film’s critical reception, Wikipedia quotes Paula Nechak of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who describes Boys Don’t Cry as a “bold cautionary tale”; a description divorced from context, given the article is nowhere to be found online, yet one which makes me ill at ease. On its own, it smacks of depreciating the value of the life depicted here, casting the story as a, “You better watch out and walk a straight line, lest something like this happen to you!” Certainly, the filmic medium has given way to plenty depictions of horrific violence as punishment for supposed deviance, an early grave the natural result of living outside the coloring book’s lines, speaking anything other than a socially-accepted “truth.” To put forth the best mixed defense-analysis of the third act’s direct, harrowing nature I can muster, I’ll say I do believe one can read Boys Don’t Cry as a cautionary tale, but not for the likes of Brandon Teena. If we can take anything from the deeply painful events depicted here, it is a word of caution towards those who would permit such a thing to happen. Not those already given to violent and controlling natures who would perpetrate the crime. Those who, on learning a friend or acquaintance is something other than expected, especially on so innocuous a front as gender, would express rejecting anger, let a sense of betrayal expand into an unwillingness to help when the violent turn their attention towards the friend. Those who would abuse their power and regard victims of a crime as curiosities to be probed and shamed rather than persons in need of help and protection. Those who would allow and ignore and foster bigotry in their community as part of the background radiation, and turn a blind eye when danger rears its head. For as painful as it is to watch the cinematic Brandon Teena suffer so and die over practically nothing at the hands of men who made monsters of themselves in pursuit of control and affirmation of their masculinity, there is also a great deal of pain in watching the supporting cast stand by and let it happen because someone they brought into their fold turned out to be a “freak.” Refusal to act contributed to this wrong as much as the bullets.
The world should not be this way. The wild promises of a dark night made a hazy, exciting arena by the glow of artificial night should not harbor the prejudices and insecurities of those who cannot approach happiness without forcing suffering onto others. The young and questioning should not be left on their own to find shelter amongst those who hate all they are and will abandon them should a single inch slip from the center. Minor crimes should not constitute a death sentence passed down by all who know the danger and refuse to help because the ranks must be drawn tight. Such horrendous violence and cruelty and tragedy should not be the highest profile work about a trans man, played by a cis woman and directed by a person who could not respect and understand a basic, fundamental aspect of his life enough to leave his birth name out of it, or make mention of the third victim. Such matters should be ours to change and make better, ours to decide this is the latest way in which we will beat all nature dictated for millions of years, shake away the biological impulse to reject and hate and destroy the outsider, and brighten the night and day alike for those who speed along its highways searching for they don’t know what except acceptance, a place in the world, the right to be as they are.
A part of me should like to say, “But such is the way of the world, and so it is over twenty years after Boys Don’t Cry’s release.” A part of me should like to bemoan the failings of understanding and acceptance again, bemoan how this is likely the only transmasculine narrative that will find its way into the Registry for a very long time, despair at the inflexibility and seeming impossibility of it all. But I have had enough of such thinking for today. It has wracked my body and filled me with worry and hopelessness, and much as I believe it important to use these to caution and temper the above article, they will not take or dominate the conclusion. What happened to Brandon Teena, Lisa Lambert, and Phillip DeVine is a tragedy beyond measure. Boys Don’t Cry is a powerful production about said tragedy as explored through the unfair impositions on a young man finding his way in the world and the cultures of willing silence and bloodletting control which precipitated his death, somewhat undercut by the inadequate understanding of trans issues in its day. We should all strive to do better, educate ourselves properly, vote for and support those who champion trans causes, donate to organizations dedicated to the fight for trans rights, and most importantly, speak out when the speaking is needed. Be the line of defense for those otherwise left defenseless. Make the wild nights safe for those who wander, lost and seeking no more than the love and respect they deserve.
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Did you know, every time I’ve watched Boys Don’t Cry, I’ve immediately taken ill for several days after, and had to delay writing about the film as a result? That’s fun. Anyhoo, let me know your thoughts in the comments, and be sure to keep your eyes peeled for next week’s entry. We’re going forward to 2002, where Patricia Cardoso directs America Ferrera in her feature debut for the Chicana-issue drama Real Women Have Curves. HBO Max and DirecTV have you for streaming, the usual song and dance of content providers for rental and purchase. See you then!