BFI LLGFF: Gun Hill Road – Intimate Spaces and Identities

Screening of Gun Hill Road (Rashaad Ernesto Green, 2011, USA)

Concentrating largely on the family unit, Gun Hill Road follows Enrique’s (Esai Morales) return home after three years in prison to find that his son has begun the process of sexual transformation. From the initial freedom Enrique experiences after leaving prison and returning to the open streets of his native Bronx, he then finds himself caught within the imprisoning confines of his home and family, who have changed beyond recognition.

One particularly beautiful scene unfolds when the teenage Michael (Harmony Santana), alone in his bedroom, becomes Vanessa. Gradually, we see him change his body and identity, donning a padded bra, flattened crotch, jean shorts, voluminous wig. With only Michael/Vanessa, the camera and the audience present we are invited to glimpse this normally hidden transformative process. We see the work that goes into this reconstruction and the subtle yet proud expression worn on Vanessa’s face upon obtaining her desired appearance.

“Fluid notions of personal identity – any identity – are brought to life.”

In the portrait of Michael/Vanessa (featuring the transgender actor Harmony Santana in her debut role), the access to private, familial spaces, bestows a sense of intimacy. We, the audience, are brought behind walls and into moments of explosive emotion. The family drama and character dynamics never leave the walled boundaries of the home. In fact Vanessa’s identity is also about constructing a wall: her appearance both defines her and shields her. Her cries of “I’m not pretty anymore!” to her mother at home disappear behind the glamour of her feminine attire and the brave face she puts on in the city streets. As a result, the backstage access we have to her world is what allows us to see what really lies beneath the surface: sadness and confusion, certainly, but also a strong sense of defiance and, paradoxically pride in being herself, however artificial that self may be.

The close quarters that the filmmaker constructs not only suggest confinement, but also provide a means of liberation. After all, confined spaces promise both restriction and safety, tucked away in one’s own room and playing to an invisible spectator. In these spaces the potential for happiness and acceptance emerges, and, above all, fluid notions of personal identity—any identity—are brought to life.

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