How I Letterboxd: Sally Jane Black

Popular member Sally Jane Black (18,000 followers and climbing) opens up about trans representation in cinema, watching films as a Marxist-Leninist and enjoying bad rom‑coms.

I began writing about film as a coping mechanism and a hobby, and part of that was figuring out what I wanted to say.” —⁠Sally Jane Black

Self-described as “the world’s foreleast expert on trans representation in film”, Sally Jane Black has proven to be quite the opposite for many others on Letterboxd. In the eight years she has kept a diary on our service, many have found inspiration, validation and insight from Sally’s educational and deeply personal writing.

With an array of cinematic interests ranging from experimental feminist films and slashers to the LA Rebellion and Spice World, Sally’s distinctive voice was naturally one we wanted to seek out in order to pick her brain.

She opens up to Mitchell Beaupre about her journey to find her voice through film, how trans representation on screen can run the gamut from the most toxic and offensive to wonderfully validating, and what that can mean for those hoping to see voices like theirs in these stories.

A Sally Jane Black favorite, Spice World (1997).
A Sally Jane Black favorite, Spice World (1997).

Let’s start at the beginning. What is your first memory of seeing a film?
Sally Jane Black: My earliest memories are all very distorted, but I do have some memory of going to a small local theater with my brothers and my father. I think it was The Care Bears Movie. I can’t recall anything about the movie. I can’t tell you how old I was. But I can remember the outside of the theater, the shadowy look of the seats, vague impressions of my father’s irritation and some images of the film. The fact that I remember it shows it left some kind of impression, but I have no idea what.

You speak openly in your reviews about gender identity and how your perspective impacts the way you see films. As you grew up, did cinema have any influence on your understanding of gender?
I was always looking for some sign of hope in movies, TV, whatever. I knew, somehow, that I was a woman, or wanted to be one as I would have put it at the time. Every time I saw a trans person, crossdresser or other gender-non-conforming character, part of me was desperately searching for understanding, for a sign that I could be who I really was. But I never got that from a film.

I was more affected by negative impressions. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective stands out as a film that made me viscerally ill in its portrayal of a trans woman. I was shown that my gender made me disgusting. I was made to feel like a punchline; it was humiliating. I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but in retrospect, the impact of cinema on my journey for most of my early life was to push me further into the closet.

There were some partially positive moments. Aspirational images or parts of films that made me feel seen. I’ve written elsewhere about how The Rocky Horror Picture Show affected me as a teenager, or how in college I responded to Hedwig and the Angry Inch or In a Year of 13 Moons much later. It wasn’t until Funeral Parade of Roses that I saw trans representation that really positively affected me, and even then, it was just to help me start writing and thinking about it.

Toshio Matsumoto’s fantasy-drama Funeral Parade of Roses (薔薇の葬列, 1969).
Toshio Matsumoto’s fantasy-drama Funeral Parade of Roses (薔薇の葬列, 1969).

You describe yourself as “the world’s foreleast expert on trans representation in film”, yet your writing on the subject has provided much education for members. What is the value of a site like Letterboxd when it comes to giving a platform to a wider range of voices?
There are many writers I would point to before myself, like Willow Maclay or claire diane. Everything I’ve written about trans representation is derivative of other trans writers. It wasn’t until I read other trans writers that I understood myself.

I am so in awe of Willow especially, as she has carved a place for herself as a professional film critic. She’s a great writer, but I guarantee you she’s had to fight harder for her place than many cis writers. She wouldn’t be able to do what she does, though, without reading other trans writers before her. And none of us would ever have been heard if there weren’t places where we could express ourselves without having to fight so hard just to be heard.

I can really only speak directly from a trans/queer perspective, but it’s clear that many different identities, nationalities, cultures have been suppressed under capitalism. Sites that let people express themselves without the usual mechanisms (editors and publishers, etc.) in place are useful in fighting that suppression. It’s not as simple as just the internet allowing a wide variety of people to have a voice, though. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and not all voices get equal access.

On Letterboxd, for instance, there are a lot of trans members whose writing wouldn’t be read if they had to rely on mainstream media to share it. It has clearly helped people on an individual basis to find themselves.

That’s why it’s so important for the Letterboxd team to get things right when it comes to shutting down bigotry or trolling. You’ll get the Nazis shouting about freedom of speech, but their presence is enough to silence others. Where’s the freedom of speech then? Freedom of speech for whom? I’ve been glad to see a lot of improvement on Letterboxd in recent years. There’s still work to be done, but that will be true as long as we live in a capitalist world.

I think it’s as important, though, for Letterboxd members to seek out diverse films as it is for having diverse voices on Letterboxd. Part of the issue is that it’s harder to find films from Africa or South America than it is to find films from Europe, North America or certain parts of Asia, but there are ways to find films that aren’t part of the standard canon.

It’s worth the extra effort to get into cinema from places you’ve never heard of. It’s worth the extra effort to drop your preconceived notions of other parts of the world and get a glimpse of them through film. There’s more to fighting internalized racism than just watching more diverse movies, but it helps.

Elem Klimov’s masterpiece Come and See (Иди и смотри, 1985).
Elem Klimov’s masterpiece Come and See (Иди и смотри, 1985).

What are some of your favorite films that you discovered thanks to other members?
I had never heard of Son of the White Mare (Fehérlófia) or Come and See (Иди и смотри) until I got on Letterboxd. There have been hundreds of films, either because of other members’ reviews or trawling through lists, that I’ve found thanks to Letterboxd. I use lists a lot. Or when I’m looking for a new horror film to watch, I go to Hollie Horror’s or MrMocata’s ratings and filter by streaming services until I find something. Also, I have to thank Steve G for making me watch On the Buses, which was revelatory in terms of how bad a movie can be. Never lose a bet to Steve; he’s heartless.

Your most popular review on the site is your takedown of The Danish Girl. What has the reaction to that review meant to you, particularly from members of the trans community who have responded to it?
Letterboxd recently made it so that we could change our [reply] settings. I literally wept to see I could turn off comments on some of my more controversial reviews. I get pretty tired of the abuse; it’s made me very prickly. But even with the ability to shut down the comments on The Danish Girl review, I chose not to. I have had so many trans people comment on that review or refer to it elsewhere, telling me how it has affected them. It wasn’t what I expected when I wrote it. I addressed it to my cis friends because I wanted to get people to stop misgendering Lili Elbe.

Instead, because I took the time to explain in detail why that was important, I ended up putting into words feelings, thoughts, truths about trans people, and that information isn’t always easy to come by. I had to learn it from online friends and books like Whipping Girl.

If I only ever had one trans person comment on that review telling me it had helped them, it’d be worth all the trolls over the years. Instead, I’ve had dozens, and far more if you count all the other trans film reviews I’ve done. It took me twenty years to find myself; I know how it feels to be lost without the words, without understanding. Helping others with that wasn’t my intention, but it’s become a motivation for writing about trans film in general now.

I want to note here that my second most popular review is also a commentary on a character transitioning in a film, but that review has not yet inspired any turnips to tell me I’ve helped them find themselves. I find that disappointing.

Sophie and Turnip Head share a moment in Howl’s Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城, 2004).
Sophie and Turnip Head share a moment in Howl’s Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城, 2004).

Some people make the argument to “keep politics out of movies”, yet you shared a Mao Zedong quote on your Twitter, describing how all art is inherently political. Could you talk about bringing that perspective into the way you see movies, and how you challenge your own political views with the types of films you choose to watch?
Becoming class-conscious—and that’s an ongoing journey—is really the most profound experience of my life, aside perhaps from transitioning. Once you see that class struggle is at the heart of everything, once you understand who the enemy is and what has to be done, so many things just fall into place. Even before I was class conscious, though, I was viewing films through a political, social and eventually feminist lens.

I have no training in writing about film. I took a few film classes in college, but not much. I am not a professional and don’t pretend to be, or want to be. I began writing about film as a coping mechanism and a hobby, and part of that was figuring out what I wanted to say. I realized at some point that I needed to listen to my feelings while watching, examine them and write about that. This helped me understand myself better, too.

As I became more class-conscious and began to study and practice Marxism-Leninism, my political writing and point of view evolved. Getting involved in political organizing changed things even more for me. There are so many reviews I wrote even three years ago I would write differently now. Part of that comes from having a Leninist understanding of the state, and part of that is feeling compelled to be better at sharing my understanding of socialism, which I know to be the path to liberation.

There’s an argument that a single film doesn’t really have that much of a political impact. That’s a little debatable, but certainly there are films that are too obscure to matter in the grand scheme of things. I still think it’s important to analyze them on a political basis, because they are part of a bigger picture. Just one bad example of trans representation isn’t going to convince the masses one way or another about trans people. But hundreds of representations, most of them negative, in film, television, art, culture, religion, etc. adds up. It’s what we call the “ideological superstructure” of the capitalist state. It’s how the capitalists indoctrinate us, divide us, control us.

The state isn’t just the government; the state is a tool of the capitalist, of the class, not of the politicians who ostensibly run things. Understanding that means understanding that Hollywood films and major film distributors and festivals are all part of the state and the ideological superstructure. You can’t ignore their role in a broader political context, even if the directors or writers of the film never thought of it that way.

This is most clear these days in analyzing MCU films, which are supported by and propaganda for the US Department of “Defense”. The messages these films [present] are abhorrent, sometimes outright fascist. If people want to “keep politics out of movies”, they should start by telling the DoD to get out of movies. Not that that would actually end it, but it’d be a more honest place to start than whining at amateur film bloggers.

Mania Akbari in Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (‎ه‎د‎, 2002).
Mania Akbari in Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (‎ه‎د‎, 2002).

As for the other way around, how films have influenced my world-view, this has mostly come from being able to see other cultures around the world. I remember watching Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten and having all the lies I had been told by US media about Iran crumble. Watching films from perspectives that don’t represent the US has helped me see past a lot of lies, a lot of racism, a lot of warmongering, and a lot of anti-communism. How anyone can watch Soy Cuba and not fall in love with Cuba is beyond me; the revolutionary spirit and power of that film is still alive there today, no matter what lies you’re hearing right now.

While you’re vocal about your beliefs, you’ve also occasionally admitted to enjoying or appreciating some films that have problematic elements. What are some of the films that you love that you can still acknowledge are problematic?
I love John Waters. I love ’70s exploitation films. I enjoy a lot of bad rom-coms. I love horror movies, especially slashers. When a film has a good political message, that makes me love [it] more, but I enjoy lots of films that aren’t politically aligned with my own beliefs.

I won’t try to defend anything about Pink Flamingos, but I love it with all of my heart and soul because it makes me laugh. It makes me happy to spend time with those horrible, nasty freaks. I feel at home there. I love ’70s exploitation films for their style. But I don’t pretend they’re good for the international working class, and I don’t ignore the problems with them. I can see them; I can write about them. I can object to them. And still I can admit I enjoyed them.

This is something I often find myself telling people: it’s okay to like these movies. It’s okay to find something to enjoy in problematic movies. Don’t like them for what makes them problematic, though. I’m not saying go out and watch Nazi propaganda—please don’t—or, ugh, W**dy A**en movies. There are films that are indefensible. But most films are just products of a flawed capitalist world, and there’s nothing wrong with sifting through the dross to find something relatable or enjoyable in it.

Divine and her Pink Flamingos (1972).
Divine and her Pink Flamingos (1972).

While there are plenty of terrible examples out there of trans representation in cinema, what would you say are some of the best?
Most recently, I have watched Lingua Franca (Willow’s review of it is very worth reading) and short films by Frances Arpaia. I gush a lot in my review of A Trans with a Movie Camera about actually seeing trans women kissing in a movie. I would say most trans people I know date other trans people, but you never see that in movies. Something Must Break, Drunktown’s Finest and Cold Breath all stand out as well. I’ve been meaning to dig into Leonora’s list of films by trans filmmakers, because that’s where you really find the best representation.

One list you’ve made recently has been to help boost your GoFundMe campaign to fund your gender-confirming surgery (readers can donate here). Congratulations on raising enough funds to make your down payment! What is the importance of the films in this list for you?
They’re all either about bodies in general or depict sexual-reassignment surgery (SRS). Not all of them are good, but they all address the human body. Using Let Me Die a Woman or Traces of Death for that list was self-deprecating to some degree, but they actually show SRS. I’m asking people to help me pay for a surgery that is going to turn my genitalia inside out; it’s one of the most vulnerable and humiliating things I’ve ever done.

I wanted a list of films to reflect that, to be as vulnerable (The Body Beautiful) or humiliating (Let Me Die a Woman) as what I was doing. Other films are there because they depict trans experiences (Funeral Parade of Roses), queer bodies (Nitrate Kisses) or sexuality (Barbarella); all of that is wrapped up in my need for surgery. I won’t admit why Go Go Second Time Virgin is on there, but suffice [it] to say it’s a very bad, inappropriate joke. All together, those films just feel right for a list where I beg for money for SRS.

To wrap up, who are three Letterboxd members you’d love to recommend people to follow?
I think I referenced several of my favorites above, so I’ll use this as a chance to mention a few folks I think are great but don’t have as many followers: Rosie, oKay and lyra.

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