From the L.A. Film Festival: FREE CECE!

In 2011 Chrishaun Cece McDonald, a black transgender woman, was attacked by a group of white people while walking to the grocery store. In the conflict, she fatally stabbed one of her attackers. Cece was arrested and eventually served 19 months in jail, a sentence that was drastically reduced thanks to the support of a network of grassroots advocates.

Though produced and directed by Jacqueline Gares, Laverne Cox (Sophia from Orange is the New Black) is our guide through the documentary. Cox extensively interviews CeCe inside and outside prison and talks with a number of her supporters. Gares and Cox use this documentary to not only share CeCe’s journey, but to highlight the plight of so many transgender individuals across the country, especially transgender women of color. The statistics are staggering: more than 50% of anti-LGBTQ homicide victims are transgender women of color. On top of this, the average age of a transgender woman of color is just 35-years-old.

Lavern Cox interviews CeCe in prison.
Laverne Cox interviews CeCe in prison.

If, like CeCe, trans women are able to fight back and survive, they are faced with a criminal justice system that is stacked against them and/or indifferent to their plight. As CeCe says in the film, “Black bodies are assumed to be criminal.” Trans women are often placed in men’s prisons and in solitary confinement “for their own safety.” In the process, the documentary implicitly shows that the more folks like CeCe fight for justice, the more they are met with injustice.

Along with this prophetic indictment of our justice system, Free CeCe! is also a celebration of not only her courage, but the determination and loyalty of her supporters. Change–if even on a case by case basis–is possible. The film also explores the way transgender people must endure transitioning relationships as it looks at CeCe’s relationship with her mother and siblings. Although initially confused by her desire to transition and fearful of society’s backlash, her family grows to embrace her for who she is as they learn a new way of speaking to and about and loving CeCe.