Judge Jennifer Malkowski thinks that Brandon Teena's transgender legacy has aged well—much better than his early '90s haircuts.
"All Brandon wanted was to be one of the guys; unfortunately, he was a girl."
Fifteen years after the murder of a young transgender man named Brandon Teena in Nebraska, his story remains a touchstone in continuing debates and discussion on hate crimes legislation and trans issues, partly because the case's injustice and brutality was so upsetting and partly because its central victim, Brandon, was so captivating. And ten years after the release of this commendable documentary, The Brandon Teena Story, it remains a definitive source for those drawn in by this complex and tragic story, along with the feature film Boys Don't Cry.
Facts of the Case
Four years in the making, The Brandon Teena Story delves into the details of a case that was actually a triple-homicide, though only one of its victims is generally cited. The events that led up to the multiple murders began when a young man named Brandon Teena arrived in Falls City, Nebraska in 1993 and became friends with a crowd that knew nothing about his past in Lincoln, Nebraska. There, he had been born biologically female as Teena Brandon, but had begun living as male and dating local girls who at first had no idea their dream guy had girl parts. According to the documentary, Brandon left Lincoln after too many people found out about his biological sex and after some trouble with the law involving theft and fraud.
In Falls City, Brandon had an intense relationship with Lana Tisdel until suspicion about his gender led their mutual friends John Lotter and Tom Nissen to forcefully "inspect" Brandon and then rape him. Brandon reported the rape and the identity of his attackers to the police, who decided not to arrest either man. When John and Tom found out that Brandon had reported them, they travelled to Lisa Lambert's house, where Brandon was staying, to find him. When they arrived, they shot and killed Brandon, Lisa, and a disabled African-American man, Philip DeVine (notably absent in the film Boys Don't Cry), who was also staying with Lisa. Only Lisa's young son, who was in the house at the time, survived.
John and Tom were arrested and tried for the murders, with Tom receiving life in prison and John getting the death penalty (though he still awaits execution today).
Because of the sweeping success of Kimberly Peirce's feature film Boys Don't Cry and Hilary Swank's Oscar-winning performance as Brandon, this more understated documentary about the story is probably destined to be viewed as a companion piece to that film. And indeed, they do go very well together, as those familiar with Boys will be pleased to pick up on lots of details in The Brandon Teena Story that then show up in Peirce's film: Lana Tisdel performs karaoke, Tom Nissen talks about why he cuts and burns himself, a letter Brandon writes from jail is read aloud. Even more fascinating, one can note the eerie resemblances between the real people in the documentary and those who played them in Boys that speak to the excellent casting of the latter: Sevigny perfectly captured the intensity and slyness behind Lana's eyes when she looks at people, and Sarsgaard somehow conjures up the same boyish innocence that occasionally flashes on John's face, even as he is being interviewed in prison after the murders.
But if there is any way that directors Susan Muska and Gréta Olafsdóttir's documentary can still stand apart from Boys Don't Cry today, it is in their commitment to the factual details of the case, and in their compelling interviews with the real people involved—particularly Lana Tisdel and John Lotter. The directors do a good job of neither portraying the former as gullible nor the latter as simply monstrous, but rather going deeper and trying to see the story from multiple angles. As dubious as such a statement probably is in any documentary, I sensed a lot of realness in the interviews with Lana and the person she appears to be in this film endears her to us pretty strongly by the end. On the other end of the spectrum, the film challenges us to think about John Lotter as a real human being, too—one with a rough life that still cannot excuse his devastating actions. It's a pretty chilling experience to watch him casually describing the sex with Brandon that he claims to believe was consensual, especially after hearing the interview between Brandon and local sheriff Charles Laux on the day he reported the rape.
This interview is the disturbing highlight of The Brandon Teena Story and is the only surviving record we have of Brandon Teena's actual voice (there appears to be no existing video footage of him). As Brandon narrates his sexual assault for the sheriff, Laux voices doubt about his the truth of his story, seems to display no compassion for his traumatic experiences, and finally proceeds to aggressively interrogate him about his gender identity, asking questions that seem to have no bearing on Laux's role as a law enforcement agent. It is deeply upsetting to hear Brandon asked these hostile questions after just having been raped, and it is equally inspiring to hear him muster up the strength to refuse to answer on several occasions. The exchange between Laux and Brandon also becomes a scene in Boys Don't Cry, but its impact is far greater here, where we have the actual audio record of this instance of transphobia and extreme insensitivity on the part of the police. In fact, Muska and Olafsdóttir report in their interview that after they stumbled upon this recording and cleaned up the audio, it came to be used in police training sessions about how not to handle a rape survivor and about gender sensitivity.
The police interview in one way is the closest we get to the living Brandon, but The Brandon Teena Story also tries to make Brandon a living presence in the film with photos, letters he wrote, and interviews with the people he cared about. Most interesting is the way that Brandon's many ex-girlfriends still talk about him so adoringly—even after their relationships have ended, and after they have learned the truth about his biological sex. One affirms that "Brandon was a woman's man—every woman's dream" and another confirms that he "knew exactly how a woman wanted to be treated." Lana herself explains that "It was nice being treated like a lady instead of like nothing, like dirt" when "like dirt" was how the other guys in Falls City would treat her. Brandon's faults do come to light in this documentary, too—his lying and stealing—but it is these testimonials from the women he dated that leave the most lasting impression. Brandon was killed for "pretending" to be a man, but to the women who knew him as one, he was the best man they could imagine.
In terms of this Collector's Edition DVD release, Docurama has done a nice job of presenting the film and offering some worthwhile special features. Viewers shouldn't expect anything too thrilling in the video and audio department with this film considering that it was a fairly low-budget documentary working with mostly snapshots of Brandon and talking-head interviews. The directors do keep things varied, though, with some nice shots of the Nebraska landscape (some of which again seem to be blueprints for shots in Boys, especially the headlights sequence that opens this film and closes the latter) and a very few moments of rather abstract dramatization. The disc features two main extras: 22 minutes of unused or extended interviews with Lana, John, Tom, and Brandon's cousin and also a new 15-minute interview with Muska and Olafsdóttir themselves. The extended interviews are well worth watching, especially Lana's, in which she talks more about her time with Brandon and how she wishes he would have told her the truth about his gender situation from the beginning. Regardless of whether Lana really would have "stuck by him and helped him through it," in that situation it is touching to hear her say it. The interview with the directors is not as riveting, but fills in some details about how they got to know the people they interviewed and the town of Falls City and allows them to speak about Brandon's "Prince Charming qualities" and the challenges of making a documentary about a dead person.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Academic Judith Halberstam devotes a large part of her book In a Queer Time and Place to the Brandon Teena case and the two films that have been made about it, and there she presents a thoughtful critique of the way The Brandon Teena Story in some sense ends up isolating transphobic and homophobic violence as something that happens "out there" in rural areas, and especially in the Midwest. Several of the interviewees here support that view of rural spaces, particularly transgender author Kate Bornstein who, standing outside the courthouse during Lotter or Nissen's trial, talks about how "you forget about this stuff" when you move to San Francisco or Seattle, like she did. I agree with Halberstam's skepticism about urban migration as the answer to this kind of violence, and about demonizing the rural Midwest as the place where such things happen. Cases like Brandon Teena's and Matthew Shepard's can't help but give rise to that view, but it's important to remember that acts of transphobic and homophobic violence happen all the time in cities, too—just more quietly. For a poignant reminder, I'd recommend another classic LGBT-related documentary of the 90s, Paris is Burning, which includes a story about the death of Venus Xtravaganza, a transsexual Latina sex worker who was strangled to death, but who didn't make the headlines that Brandon Teena or Matthew Shepard did.
Though destined to stand in the shadow of Boys Don't Cry, the feature film on the same event that was released a year later, The Brandon Teena Story remains just as much a must-see. Those just learning about the case will be fascinated and moved by this documentary, while fans of Boys will find details here that both complement and challenge the story told in that film. Certainly, Brandon Teena's story—and the many other stories of anti-trans violence that it represents—is one that must be retold and remembered and Muska and Olafsdóttir's documentary is a great vehicle for such remembering.
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