LAFF 2016 Review: Free CeCe!

Written by Kristen Lopez

With trans issues at the forefront of several legal squabbles, it isn’t surprising that documentaries have cast their eye towards analyzing the world of LGBTQI issues and the broken justice system which repeatedly fails them. Acting as a close cousin to the fantastic Southwest of Salem is Free CeCe!, a similar story of prosecutorial misjustice and a sobering look at violence against trans women of color.

On a hot summer night in 2011, Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald was attacked by a group of white people while out walking with friends. In the ensuing melee, a man died and CeCe is arrested, charged with murder. Her cries of self-defense fall on deaf ears and in looking at CeCe’s case, a wealth of injustice, violence, and death is brought to light, all aimed at giving a voice to trans women of color.

Jacqueline Gares’ documentary has many layers, each one worthy of a documentary in its own right. The introduction of CeCe’s “crime” opens the door to a more serious discussion about race and white supremacy, a prescient topic in our current political world. Neither CeCe and her friends, nor the white people who fought with her disagree that harsh words were exchanged, but it is the reactions of CeCe and her friends to being called racial slurs which emphasizes the true weight of what is, essentially, a hate crime, and that the man’s attack was sparked from a need to “validate his white supremacy.” Neither the prosecutor nor the white people who fought with CeCe acknowledge the crime for what it is, and it is from this world, of unreported hate crimes against trans women of color, that blossoms out towards CeCe’s journey of self-acceptance and courageous call for justice.

A rather quick set-up of the case moves the film towards looking at the movement around CeCe’s incarceration and attempts to secure her release. The haphazard set-up and drop-in in medias res leads the audience to believe the documentary was in flux for awhile, as if Gares and crew were unaware if CeCe would get out, and what starts as a critique of the justice system becomes a grander call to revolution upon CeCe’s release.

The story proper begins once CeCe is free, and it acts as a benefit and detriment to the tale being told. Gares should be applauded for finding a narrative that doesn’t conventionally unfold like a typical crime drama would where a crime is committed, someone goes to jail, and the film is devoted to undoing the prosecution’s case. Free CeCe! is, instead, a call to arms; a blistering expose of how crimes against trans women, particularly of color, are routinely swept under the rug or marginalized. Media reports, both of CeCe’s attack and attacks on other women, continuously misgender the victims and/or focus on the dead attackers. Moments like these resonate, not just with trans women or women of color, but all women who continuously see rapists or abusers pitied by a sympathetic press.

CeCe’s journey eventually sees her teaming up with Orange is the New Black star, Laverne Cox, and the two go on a road-trip looking at various trans women communities. In spite of all the death, sadness, and frustration Cox and CeCe see, they remain somber and optimistic, desperate for a change to come. Because these moments aren’t particularly planned – the documentarian is following them looking for the story – there’s significant drag in the second act as the film finds its new plotline.

As CeCe becomes more enmeshed in the trans communities outside her home, the film tackles CeCe as an individual and CeCe as the part of a greater whole. The former is best delivered when CeCe returns home to visit her family, as her mother continuously misgenders her – referring to her by her male name – and confessing she doesn’t really understand CeCe’s transition, but is trying. CeCe’s anger and frustration at her own mother is palpable. Later on, when CeCe visits a community where murdered Latina trans women are honored and remembered, the emphasis is CeCe is one in a spectrum. When so many trans women praise CeCe for just surviving her attack, it brings CeCe into a grander plain of marginalized women.

Free CeCe! is the most accomplished documentary from a technical standpoint, but it makes up for its freshman mistakes by presenting a story and a woman anyone should want to learn more about.

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