Sundance: A bittersweet documentary tells the story of New York’s gentrification through the women who once worked in the Meatpacking District.
You’d never know it from the sleek glass Apple store and velvet rope hotel clubs that now stand there, but New York’s Meatpacking District was once a center for black and brown trans women to make an honest living. Even if you know its history, it can be hard to conjure up images of goddesses in fabulous heels walking the cobbled streets that are now lined with luxury shops. For those who have lived through it, the experience is even more disheartening. That’s one of the bittersweet revelations in “The Walk,” a hauntingly poignant documentary that attempts to uncover and preserve that broken history — while those who lived it are still here.
Directed by Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker, “The Stroll,” a film about transgender workers, is a rarity in its portrayal of a group too often sensationalized and dehumanized. The film takes its title from the block of 14th Street between Ninth Avenue and the Hudson River, where many once found the profession the girls called Walking. Interviewing many women from the 1970s to the early 1970s who were previously “in the life,” “The Walk” captures the essence of what it was like to walk. Persistent racist policing, violence, poverty and employment discrimination; they also found joy, humor, brotherhood and community. By celebrating the humanity and spirit of these women without minimizing their hardships, this dichotomy is what makes “The Walk” so markedly different from what came before it.
Adding a fascinating layer of media commentary (without over-intellectualizing it, as has become the indulgent trend in some recent trans documentaries), the film opens with Lovell reviewing footage of his younger self in a 2007 film called Queer Streets. “My mission is to tell this story before we go,” he says now, firmly in the director’s chair. “I feel like I could do it well if I told it myself.” As co-director, Drucker brought with him a wealth of archival knowledge; the filmmaker is an expert in early trans cinema and film recordings. “The Stroll” uses many of these early images to vividly visualize the Meatpacking District, painting a nostalgic portrait of a rougher, warmer, more livable New York.
A less flattering discovery that might ruffle a few boa feathers is an early recording of a young RuPaul, a precursor to a street interview show in the ’90s that might live on YouTube or TikTok today. He waltzes through The Stroll in a flippant and almost mocking tone, easily interviewing some of the girls while distancing himself from them with every joke. In contrast to the very harrowing survival stories, RuPaul’s seems classic and cruel. It’s a startling revision made all the more poignant by Lovell’s personal perspective.
The cognitive dissonance continues with the rapid gentrification of the area, first by former mayor Rudy Giuliani and then by Michael Bloomberg. A New York Times headline read “The Shantyown of The He-Shes” at the top of an article about the riverside outdoor shacks that trans rights pioneer Sylvia Rivera once called home. A former neighborhood organizer named John, who agreed to be interviewed for the film, proudly recalls a banner he hung from what is now The Highline threatening to expose potential Johns by identifying them by their license plates and calls them home (which he did). . “I can’t believe how many times I had to go to jail to get this Highline Park built,” Lovell notes grimly.
The filmmakers assemble an impressive array of talent from the get-go, showcasing each legend through his years at The Stroll. They include Egyptt LaBeija, listed in the last line as “General Goddess of House LaBeija,” and Ceyenne Doroshow, founder of GLITS, which recently opened the first housing complex for black trans women in New York City. Along with the other surviving interviewees, they also provide colorful anecdotes in addition to the overwhelming scale of trans history. For every one of them, there are ten who did not survive, which they live with every day.
Where archival footage is scarce, “The Stroll” uses dynamic black-and-white 2D cut-out animation to illustrate some of the film’s stories, a technique Drucker used in his excellent HBO documentaries The Lady and The Dale. It’s a clever way to add visuals without relying on recreation, and it keeps the film from depicting violence against sex workers while still being able to address it.
The film presents with stark reality the many stacks stacked against trans workers of color that resonate today: the corrupt NYPD, the appalling conditions at Rikers and Giuliani’s broken windows, and the legacy of Bloomberg’s unchecked real estate development. More than a character study of a few dynamic trailblazing women, “The Walk” really strives to tell the story of events in New York over the past few decades through the lens of The Meatpacking District and the women who once called it home. The result is poignant, heartbreaking and maddening, a bitter truth to be reckoned with.
“The Stroll” premiered in the US documentary competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The film is released by HBO Documentary Films.
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