One incident can forever change a person’s life. This shouldn’t be news to anyone; in fact, just about all of us have defining experiences that mold who we are and impact how we interact with the world. And yet, sometimes those defining experiences aren’t as unique as they first appear, and the world looks a bit bleaker in that realization. This is perhaps what the documentary Free CeCe captures best of all. What happened to CeCe McDonald could just as easily happen to any other transgender person, and the kind of social and political change necessary to prevent that just isn’t coming fast enough.
For those unfamiliar with Ms. McDonald’s case, here is what happened: While out with a group of friends one night in Minneapolis, CeCe and her friends—all Black—were attacked by a group of white supremacists. In the midst of the altercation, CeCe pulled out a pair of scissors from her purse and held them out in self-defense. The attacker died of a stab wound, but CeCe, the victim of this scenario, was arrested and charged with second degree murder. The Minneapolis LGBT community rallied against CeCe’s unjust imprisonment, drawing worldwide attention and shedding light on the violence perpetrated against transgender women of color, both on a physical and institutional level.
If one weren’t familiar with CeCe’s history, the film’s opening might come across as a bit opaque, considering its demonstration of CeCe’s swelling support base without much in the way of context. Thankfully, director Jac Gares doesn’t linger too long on this prologue and launches into the facts of the case and how the state sought to demonize her on the basis of race and to deprive her of her liberties because of her gender identity. Solitary confinement in a men’s prison and coercive tactics eventually forced CeCe to accept a plea bargain, but Gares and executive producer Laverne Cox—who also fills the role of chief interviewer—do a fantastic job of painting a portrait of a broken legal system that uses race, gender, and misgendering as shorthand analyses of criminality.
CeCe’s case only takes up about half of the runtime, though, as the film moves on to follow CeCe in the months after her release from prison. Here Gares and Cox saw fit to elaborate on CeCe’s background growing up, but that ultimately clashes with the narrative of CeCe moving on with her life, leading me to wish that this information had provided us with context prior to her incarceration, rather than after. The information is all interesting and expressively told, but it eventually muddies the impact of emotionally complex family reunions that would have been greater had we been allowed to first dwell on CeCe’s troubled home life.
But in the end, that foible is forgivable, as Free CeCe builds into a crescendo that demonstrates CeCe’s growing commitment to the abolition of the prison industrial complex, and it becomes painfully clear to the audience why that is. Transgender women, particularly women of color, are the target of an incredibly disproportionate amount of violence that results in the highest murder rate of any minority group. The story of CeCe’s attack isn’t at all unusual, and the unfortunate thing is that her punishment for acting in self-defense isn’t all that unusual either. The extraordinary thing about CeCe’s case is how she fought to survive even as the criminal justice system sought to tear her down and silence her, and how the world took notice. Transgender people are more than just statistics, and this story puts a very human face on a very pressing and serious issue. Free CeCe isn’t a perfect documentary, but it is a powerful one that needs to be seen and shared.