Tangerine: Is the 2015 Movie Rooted in Reality?

Directed by Sean Baker, ‘Tangerine’ follows two transgender sex workers who barge through the streets of Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to catch a cheating boyfriend. Sin-Dee has just gotten out of jail after 28 days when she meets her best friend, Alexandra, and inadvertently discovers that the love of her life is cheating on her. Despite Alexandra’s pleadings to stay calm and not cause a scene, Sin-Dee storms up to the other girl, pulls her around town by her hair, and nearly gets arrested again. The gritty yet vibrant 2015 film juggles realism and comedy, effectively delivering on both fronts. The simple yet bold themes explored in the film, alongside its essaying of harsh realities faced by transgender people, generate questions about the basis of its story in real life.

Tangerine is Inspired by True Events

The story of ‘Tangerine’ is inspired by one that actresses Mya Taylor and Rodriguez recounted to Sean Baker. The narrative’s gritty nature mixed with comedy also comes from the actresses’ demands made of the director. The conception of ‘Tangerine’ came about when Sean Baker came across the corner of Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, a de facto red light district close to where he lived in Los Angeles, California. Thinking about all the incredible stories that probably took place on the corner, he wanted to tell one of them through film.

As Baker and writer Chris Bergoch began approaching the women working the corner, hoping to find a collaborator, they were ignored as the sex workers thought they were cops. However, when they met Mya Taylor at the Village at Ed Gould Plaza, an LGBT community center, the two believed that they had found not only their guide but also their star. While recounting the meeting in an interview, Baker said, “There was just something about Mya — she attracted our attention from 40 feet away — and we went up to her and introduced ourselves and started talking about this project, and it was that ‘eureka’ moment where she expressed just as much enthusiasm back to us. … She was that collaborator we were looking for.”

Taylor introduced the duo to her friend and future co-star, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Both actresses are transgender women in real life, with Taylor admitting that she had to resort to sex work when she was being rejected for most jobs based on discrimination. Taylor was beginning her physical transition by taking female hormones during the shooting of the movie. This is reflected in her character responding to a compliment on her breasts by saying that the estrogen is kicking in. Taylor also revealed that she has been to jail several times when she got caught by the police, which scared her more than possibly violent clients.

Owing to Rodriguez and Taylor’s involvement in the film, ‘Tangerine’ is chock-full of realistic depictions of what life is like for transgender women on the streets of Los Angeles. The main storyline about Sin-Dee’s revenge-driven adventure is inspired by a story Rodriguez and Taylor have heard during their rough time in the city. The movie was initially going to have a very subdued and humorless tone. However, Taylor insisted that Baker depict the sequences as realistically as possible to show what life was actually like on the streets. She also demanded that he make the movie funny so more people would see it.

Baker was initially doubtful about how he would balance her suggestions but soon realized their merits. “I was very thankful that she had this request because I’m not sure I would’ve gone down this road without her guidance on it,” he said in the aforementioned interview. “It’s something that I was very apprehensive about at first, but then I realized it was the only way to go because it wasn’t condescending to the subjects.” Much of the film’s subject matter and inspiration come from the experiences of Taylor and Rodriguez. Taylor was nearly abandoned by her family when she came out to them at the age of 18. She moved to Los Angeles to make a living and discovered how it was nearly impossible to find employment for transgender people.

She was helped by the Jeff Griffith Youth Center to get back on her feet and begin working to support herself. The area of her residence was inhabited by sex workers and drug dealers, and her work there alongside Rodriguez led to the experiences that have largely informed the story and subplots of ‘Tangerine.’Written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, ‘Tangerine’ is a fictional movie inspired by Baker’s vision and brought to life by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor’s experiences. It is highlighted by its brutally honest portrayal of ground realities while still retaining a sense of humor to provide a nuanced and humanizing perspective on the lives of transgender women.

Read More: Best Movies About Prostitution and Sex Workers