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Filmmaker's Forum: Marta Cunningham Explains The Valentine's Tragedy That Turned Her Into a Filmmaker

By Marta Cunningham | /Bent February 14, 2014 at 4:08AM

Laverne Cox recently spoke about how popular media narratives on trans people are limiting, too often only comfortable defining them as victims or statistics. The 2008 murder of Larry King was a case in point. According to the prevailing story, Larry was a 15 year old (generally labelled as gay or "cross dressing" rather than trans) who had recently begun wearing make-up and high heels to school and asking to be addressed by various female names. On February 12th, he asked a classmate, Brandon McInerney, to be his valentine. The next day, Brandon shot him dead.
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"Valentine Road"
"Valentine Road"


She feels a responsibility as a female director of color

When we did a Q&A at a school in Toronto, the kids were shocked that I was African-American. That really meant something to the immigrants in the room. People don’t understand how important it is for filmmakers to travel with their films. I’ve had heads of festivals who didn’t know what to do with me. Festival guests who assumed I was an actress. I don’t know what it says about them but people are really shocked.

She doesn’t want race to define the film

There are very few people from the black community who have come out and supported this film. Because it’s not tailored for any particular audience. It’s not tailored for an LGBT audience or a straight audience, it’s just a film from a human standpoint. And probably from a woman’s standpoint, if I was going to categorize it. I think I made it different to the way a man would make it.

She hopes to counteract the prevailing media narrative

The lack of understanding was not just because Larry was trans, but was also race-related and class-related. You’re talking about a child who was living in a homeless shelter, and that brings a whole other level of misunderstanding.

May Fox says in the film that she picked a terrible jury. But it wasn’t just specific to those people. The jury echoed the sentiments that I was reading in the media. It was extremely disheartening, being there every day of the trial, witnessing what I was witnessing and then reading in the paper what the reporter sitting next to me was witnessing. It was like we were in two different courtrooms.

The issue is wider than one case

When we’re talking about our young black youth, particularly male, for some reason our country has got very comfortable with blaming them for their own deaths. Look at Trayvon. It was such a huge lesson for me, even when I was doing interviews about the film, the lack of interest from media outlets. I think people get very comfortable - it’s 2014 and Obama’s president, look how much we’ve changed. Larry’s case and Trayvon’s case prove that we haven’t.

America needs to look to its youth

We are so tribal in American culture. Young kids aren’t. What you can see in the film is that they’re not thinking about race. There’s a whole new generation coming up that I don’t think America knows about. That are really politically savvy and understand things I didn’t even know about when I was eighteen. They have a tremendous amount of hardship but they’re comfortable with themselves. It’s a rough road but they’re pushing that envelope, pushing the boundaries. I wanted to give these kids a voice.

She takes her inspiration from Larry

Young people need us to guide them. It shouldn’t be the other way round. Larry and Trayvon were kids. Everyone has a Larry in their family, or among their friends and co-workers, and it’s really time for us to stop this isolation and abuse - this insane level of blame and shame for being different and confident. That’s what Larry decided - no more bullying, this is who I am. He was dead within two weeks.

In giving people like Larry a voice, she has fulfilled a dream

When I was a teenager I discovered Spike Lee. Someone finally having a voice that I agreed with. I thought to myself, if he gets to tell the story of how he grew up in Brooklyn in such a matter-of-fact way, I want to do that.

I picked Larry to be my first film because I grew up with so many kids that were misunderstood and never had a chance. They weren’t given the same opportunities as a lot of the white kids. And I wanted to represent the kids I remember growing up with that really struggled to be heard.

This is part of a series of first person posts in which we provide a forum for filmmakers and other artists to discuss their process, their influences and/or their experiences showing their work.  “Valentine Road” has recently been nominated for a GLAAD award for Outstanding Documentary. It will continue its festival tour in 2014.

This article is related to: Filmmakers Forum