Has there ever been a filmed transgender musical written directly for the screen before? This is what I thought moments after watching the enrapturing feature-length debut of Damon Cardosis, Saturday Church. And though there are many laudable narrative features regarding the transgender experience (including Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with its roots in live theater, and the harrowing Boys Don’t Cry), Saturday Church may very well be a first.
Before I go on to praise what is in essence a sweet, likable tale, let’s get the criticism out of the way. There’s some stiff acting in a few scenes (though not by the trans actresses, are all whom are uniformly great). The script — about a 14-year-old African-American person’s struggle to claim their true identity, whether that be transgender or gender-nonconforming — is schematic (it doesn’t hit any points you don’t see coming long before they arrive). Also, some of the songs written for the film fall flat.
And yet none of this matters.
In much the same way that Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It was a moment of self-identification for an underserved audience that had longed to see itself on-screen in a way more truthful than what they’d been served by the Hollywood hit machine, Saturday Church — fantasy musical though it may ultimately be — has the weight of authenticity behind it.
“First, and foremost,” Cardosis has said, “I want the community to feel like it tells their story and that they see themselves on-screen, and it’s an accurate representation of who they are.”
Accurate or not — and, as mentioned, it feels bona fide — Saturday Church is refreshing. Ulysses (Luka Kain), after the death of his military father and under the watchful eye of his religiously conservative Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor), escapes from the Bronx and into New York. There he discovers the titular program for LGBTQ youth, in which he — and we — are introduced to a rainbow coalition of characters we don’t often get to see on-screen (and what might, in a stodgy old Hollywood production, once have been referred to as a “bomber crew”).
There’s the protective and embracing Ebony (Mj Rodriguez), the sisterly and still-figuring-her-look-out Dijon (Indya Moore) and the fashionista bitch queen Heaven (Alexia Garcia). Running the shelter is the no-nonsense, straight-talking Joan (trans trailblazer Kate Bornstein). Along with the women who school Ulysses in the life and how to present in ballroom culture, there’s Raymond (Marquis Rodriquez), the possible love interest.
Between Ulysses’s domestic drama with his Aunt Rose, his tattletale brother Abe (Jaylin Fletcher) and his put-upon mother Amara (Margot Bingham); the bonding with Ebony, Dijon and Heaven at the Saturday church; and the flirtation with Raymond, we get songs. (And choreography, color, melodrama!)
The best is an almighty number by Ebony telling it like it is. The most sentimental is the closing number sung by Amara about parental acceptance (it’s Bingham’s finest moment in the film). There’s a bullying sequence, with dance, set in the boy’s locker room at high school, and a love duet between Ulysses and Raymond (sweet and passionate, but a bit doe-eyed for my taste). These are all serious and high-camp simultaneously, crazily entertaining, and the movie is over before you know it.
Cardosis pulls off a nifty trick here with his debut. He doesn’t skimp on the reality of the transgender experience — and the actresses each embody it immaculately — but he also doesn’t define them strictly by that identity. They just are, and that allows them shades of feeling and individuality we don’t often get with more serious-minded drama.
“We have lives and experiences that aren’t just about the struggles of being trans and on the margins,” Indya Moore has said. “Where are [the stories] where our trans-ness is not [the major plot point]?”
Well, here it is in Saturday Church. And it isn’t until the film is over that you realize there is not one character — minor or important — that’s a white, cisgender male.
What is it that they say in church? Oh yeah. Amen.
Saturday Church is in theaters today
Featured image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films