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n Christmas Eve in Los Angeles, best friends Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra sit at a Donut Time on the corner of Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. They are Black, trans sex workers living poor. Sin-Dee has just finished serving a 28-day prison sentence and is about to announce her engagement to Chester, a West Hollywood pimp, when Alexandra interrupts to tell her that Chester has been cheating on her with a “white fish”—“real vagina and everything, yes girl.”
The rapport is snappy. One moment, the two are incredibly funny: “the estrogen’s finally kicking in”, Alexandra says. “The only thing that hasn’t broken down is these fucking arms”. The next, a beat: Sin-Dee has nothing to say back after asking Alexandra for her phone: “it was shut off because I had to cover your rent last month”. Sin-Dee seems contemplative, until she stands up, shoves the rest of a donut in her mouth (which they were supposed to share), and leaves the Donut Time. The familiar chime of a convenience store door marks the beginning of her manhunt through L.A. to find her fiancé. Outside, Tangerine depicts an inner-city in visceral ruins.
Through Sin-Dee’s and Alexandra’s eyes, we see how “legal and disciplinary infrastructures give rule its permission, and the affective infrastructures that regulate intimacy and collectivity”. We glimpse all kinds of social relations and undisciplined interactions: the sexual, financial, transactional, disciplinary, gendered, and racialized exchanges eased by infrastructures of people, places, and things in a “ruined urbanization”, foggy with affect (Simone, 2004: 407).
To follow the infrastructure in Tangerine--the artificial built form and fluorescent orange light that flood the screen--reveals the everyday occasions where it is both enforced ‘properly’ and transgressed improperly. It reveals a literal and figurative repurposing as Sin-Dee and Alexandra move through the city toward intimacies they cherish, and those they don’t (Wilson, 2016: 262). While Alexandra is working, a john becomes angry when she stops consenting to his requests. He refuses to pay her; she pursues him. “Help! I’m being accosted, help!”, he yells as he flops on the hood of a cop car. “Have you not worked with Alexander?” the one in the driver’s seat asks her partner, watching this unfold from inside the cruiser. The officers relish in their easy transphobia - Alexander, Alexandra. “Why does he owe you forty dollars?” -- “He knows me very well. Ask him”.
As Lowe (2006) writes, to study these intimacies and proximities, the ones that disturb us, is to acknowledge relational ontologies that decenter an Enlightenment genealogy of the human. Razmus, a regular john, drives around in his cab for what feels like an hour, cruising for a hookup, and then trying to find a spot where the authorities won’t catch them when he picks up Alexandra. “Don’t worry”, he says, having had a surprise encounter himself a few moments before, “I have money for you”. He sounds grateful to be able to give it to her. Chauncey (1996: 258) describes how gay men and working class youth in the 1920s could only have their privacy in the public. He explains the convoluted and resourceful ways that these men created spaces for intimate encounters, subverting “bourgeois norms about public behaviour” and creating “alternative mappings of urban space” in the process (Parlette and Cowen, 2011: 796). Razmus and Alexandra pull into an automated car wash. He performs oral sex on her as four giant, blue, rubber brushes spin 360 times against the body of the car; 25 gallons of water pour every minute; 16 gallons of foamed, multicolour soap coat; and 8 dryers blast air at 190 miles per hour after other robots wax, brush, and pull by industrial conveyor.
To follow the thread of infrastructure in Tangerine is to follow the parking lots, walls, security cameras, streets, bathrooms, waiting places, and orange light: material spaces that reveal capital flows as they govern. For such an energetic film, Sin-Dee and Alexandra spend a surprising amount of time on subway platforms and night buses, for one. Alexandra, who once told Sin-Dee that “out here, it’s only about our hustle” hands out homemade pamphlets up and down the street, promoting her performance later that night instead of working. After she finishes singing “Toytown” to an empty bar, Alexandra palms a $20 to the manager, probably from the same stack of bills Razmus just gave her. It’s a subtle nod to the flows of micro-capital in Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s world, the world of sex work, but also to the circulation of dreams.
If we as scholars derive our social theory from such scenes of ambivalence, “which is to say, the scenes of attachment that are intimate, defined by desire, and overwhelming” (Berlant, 2016: 395), what can we learn from Tangerine and its co-stars? Keeping close thinkers who write against the tendency to derive the urgency of social theory “and its reparative imaginary from spaces of catastrophe and risk” (Hewitt, 1983), I offer that Tangerine gestures toward the possibility of repairing infrastructures and extending lifeworlds “from within brokenness” (Berlant, 2016: 383).
Tangerine offers an experiential approach to reading infrastructures, making explicit the ways in which our relationship to space is laden with psychic and cultural meaning, racial and gender politics that have been absorbed into everyday space, and in particular, its infrastructures (Wilson, 2016: 258; Dourish and Bell, 2007: 416). As Warf (2006: 258) writes, to follow the infrastructure reveals “who pays (and who does not), who benefits (and who does not), and where roads go (and where they do not)”. Sin-Dee and Alexandra repurpose infrastructure that was never meant for them. Their bare lives and most intimate practices, from having sex to doing the laundry, take place in the public. In fact, we never even see where they live.
The production and absorption of racial-sexual difference in urban infrastructures is symptomatic of processes of “human and inhuman classification” (McKittrick, 2006: xxiii). Where bare life is predicated on concealment, there is necessarily an element of disrepair in the spaces that Sin-Dee and Alexandra occupy. This is not to linger on an aesthetic of abject spaces, but rather to point out that concealment, differentiation, and marginalization play a role in everyday negotiations between domination and Black women’s geographies (McKittrick, 2006: xxiii). A more productive reading of Blackness, then, is to turn our attention to the “subaltern spatial practices…written into and expressed through the poetics of landscape” (McKittrick, 2006: xxiii). Blackness-and infrastructure-in Tangerine functions as an ontological site of abjection, but also, as Fred Moten (2008) contends, one of fugitivity. Like what humans have done with brokenness for millennia, in a state of less, of infrastructural failure and cyborg, Sin-Dee and Alexandra take the rubble and make it into something useful (Gordillo, 2014: 76; Wilson, 2016: 273; Berlant, 2016).
To watch Tangerine with an eye toward infrastructure “links blow jobs to urban planning and capital accumulation”, including the way in which Sin-Dee and Alexandra repurpose gender-demarcated infrastructure-the public bathroom-for queer intimacy (Wilson, 2016: 259). The ‘bathroom problem’ is loaded with connotation. Let 2018 be known as the year of the bathroom bill. Yet feminist and queer scholars have engaged with the bathroom for a long time, what Jack Halberstam characterised as a “structural feature” of queer and trans representation (2012: 84). The depth of a trans character’s interior often ends in a bathroom, where they are outed or queer-bashed to supposedly make the audience sympathetic to their trans-ness (For a few examples, see TV shows Transparent, Orange Is The New Black, and music video by Lady Gaga, “Til It Happens To You”). Tangerine’s so-called bathroom scene does no such thing. That Tangerine is not obsessed with dehumanizing its Black, trans characters is one of its principal gifts. Rather than making a spectacle of Black and queer pain, Tangerine “makes the brutal, tender” (Nelson, 2015: 118).
It is through such displays of intimacy that Sin-Dee and Alexandra trouble the common-sense division between public and private spheres, where common sense is merely the “bourgeois order of truth standing in for the universal” (Barthes, 1972; Stoler, 2008; Berlant, 2016). In the words of Ann Laura Stoler, “To study the intimate is not to turn away from structures of dominance but to relocate their conditions of possibility and relations and forces of production” (2006: 13). In expressing their intimacy as a public and political mode of relating, Tangerine reveals how certain forms of intimacy—notably, white heterosexual nuclear families—are valorized while others, such as Black poor life, are criminalized (Halberstam, 2012). Intimacy is not private; it has been privatized. Intimacy, then, becomes a rubric to elucidate broad processes of political economy and surveillance. In relation to globalization, for example, Pratt and Rosner theorise that the intimate “functions not as [its] opposite…but as its corrective, supplement, or its undoing” (2006, 17). This is particularly true in spaces of urban decline, where the everyday spatial practices of poor and racialized communities depend on ‘public’ spaces for social reproduction as well as recreation and consumption (Parlette and Cowen, 2011: 794).
Tangerine is, among other things, a geographic story about Sin Dee and Alexandra’s ongoing struggle to assert humanness and form “more humanly workable” relations in the non-places they traverse (McKittrick, 2006: xxiv). Looking at the landscape not merely as accessory, but as a container for relationality that “dismantles the thought of non-Being” (Glissant 2010: 186), undoes the “incorrect notion that Black life is… philosophically underdeveloped”, and sequentially, the ways in which discussions around urban geographies are raced, gendered, and classed (McKittrick, 2006: xiii). Tangerine refuses the all-too-familiar ways in which queer relationality to the normal, and to normal infrastructures, is inherently violent. The site of Tangerine is an alterable terrain on which Sin-Dee and Alexandra negotiate their liberation (McKittrick, 2006); a suggestion towards a relation that “contaminates, sweetens, as a principle, or as flower dust.”
In the closing scene of Tangerine, Sin-Dee and Alexandra sit quietly on a hard bench bolted to the floor of a Laundromat. What began as Sin-Dee’s rampage to find Chester and his white fish now has taken a somber tone when she finds out that Alexandra has also slept with him. After a humiliating encounter where Sin-Dee has a cup of urine thrown into her face by a car full of men, Alexandra leads her to the Laundromat. She coaxes Sin-Dee to take off her clothes and wig to be washed. For the first time, Sin-Dee looks fragile. Sensing this, as well as the weight of her own remorse, Alexandra takes off her own wig and offers it to her friend. All this to say that Sin-Dee and Alexandra are complicated people. They aim to both disrupt binaries of gender and claim the category of woman for themselves, something that, as Marquis Bey notes in conversation with Kai Green, marginalized queers are often excluded from doing and thus take special joy in (442). Their lives are sour-sweet.
In one of my favourite scenes, the entire cast has convened at Donut Time. There is drama. Mama-san, purveyor of donuts, is pissed. “I’m sorry, Mama-san”, Chester appeals, “please don’t call the po-lice, I promise I’ll buy a donut”. Things get rowdy. Shortly thereafter, Mama-san has had enough; everybody gets kicked out.
The Donut Time in Tangerine and its real-life counterpart are one and the same. Before its closure last year, it was a preferred spot for sex workers in West Hollywood, many of them trans women, to sit and watch the streets in between jobs. "If you're not from that world, if you're just some Angeleno driving by, the only glimpse into that world is what you see on the street," remembered Sean Baker, Tangerine’s director. "And because it was such a visible location with the windows there, you could see into that little world for a moment while you're sitting there at the red light”. Fittingly, it was at the Donut Time that Baker first met co-stars Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (Sin-Dee) and Mya Taylor (Alexandra), two Black, trans women who organize and live in the area.
To look with an eye toward infrastructure, and its subversion toward a plurality of uses, reimagines place as perpetually unfinished. The claim to place therefore should not be followed by material ownership but a “grammar of liberation, through which ethical human-geographies can be recognized and expressed” (McKittrick, 2006: xxiii). A work like Tangerine, in centering the spatial and imaginary practices of Black queer women, hints at such a possibility. To register the presence of Black queer life and its attendant geographies, then, is to see them as such: geographies of the human.