WMM Summit: Laverne Cox and Netflix Exec Discuss Being Seen in Film

How many girls see themselves in office because of characters like Leslie Knope and Selina Meyer? How many teenagers cheer on their on-screen counterparts in movies like The Half of It, which features a queer, Chinese-American leading lady, and TV shows like Sex Education, where the beautifully diverse cast of high school characters has captured hearts around the world?

Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox poses in the press room during the 22nd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 30, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Image Credit: Getty Images, Frazer Harrison)

During the second day of the Women Moving Millions annual summit, Laverne Cox took the virtual stage with Darnell Moore, Director of Inclusion Strategy for Content and Marketing at Netflix, to discuss the power inherent in seeing people who look, talk, and live like us in the TV shows and movies we watch.

In “Changing the Narrative: The Power of Representation in Film,” actress Laverne Cox spoke with Darnell Moore on the ways Hollywood is addressing issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access, particularly in this painful moment of anti-Black racism and transphobia.

The conversation opened with a teaser trailer for Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, a Netflix Original Documentary film that captures Hollywood’s depiction of transgender people and the impact of their stories on transgender lives. Using the film as a backdrop for the conversation, Cox and Moore discussed the issues the entertainment industry still has to overcome, as well as the ways we’re making strides toward progress.

Laverne Cox on the Moment We’re Living In

Moore kicked off the conversation by introducing Cox, a four-time Emmy-nominated Actress who Executive Produced the Sam Feder-directed documentary.

“Consistently, it feels to me that it is paramount to be able to hold contradictory thoughts, opinions, and feelings at the same time,” said Cox. She spoke to an event a year ago, after four murders of trans women in quick succession. At this event, Cox discussed the way she could turn to Instagram, movies, and television and see “all this great representation, but trans people are still being murdered in the street.”

The difficulty here, for Cox, is in fighting for representation in media and continuing to celebrate the trans experience through events like Pride Month, while also not losing sight of the real and present dangers trans people face every day.

Shedding Light on Representation with Disclosure

Next, Moore asked Cox what it was like learning about the history of trans representation through her role as Executive Producer of Disclosure, as well as what the experience meant to her.

“I’ve always been interested in history as a teacher,” she said. She shared a story about a conversation she had with her manager on the next step she wanted to take in her career. “I wanted to do something about trans history. I think it’s really important.” During OUT Fest in Los Angeles, Cox attended a panel in which director Sam Feder shared the research behind what would eventually become Disclosure. “I met with Sam after his presentation and just said, ‘How can I be involved?’ It’s almost as if I manifested this idea, and the Universe just aligned and brought me to Sam–and Sam to me. This is a project I have always wanted to do.”

“We cannot have a full sense of what a moment is if we don’t have a historical perspective,” she added. “And that’s what Disclosure is for me.”

Cox also pointed out the juxtaposition between the unprecedented amount of trans representation we’re seeing in TV and film right now alongside the equally unprecedented amount of violence against transgender people happening in the world.

“How did we get here?” she asked. “There’s been a consistent devaluation, dehumanization of trans folks that we see in our media for over a hundred years, so it’s not so surprising that our lives are devalued and dehumanized in real life, that our life chances are so diminished if we’re transgender, and particularly for transgender people of color.”

Recent Victories Should Be Celebrated, But Cannot Put Off Future Work

Cox spoke to the inspiration she felt from recent victories for trans representation and protection, including the recent [Bowstock] case that went to the Supreme Court.

“Just because we have public policies in place that protect folks doesn’t mean that people’s minds and hearts will be changed,” said Cox. “And that is the work that we must do in the media. That is the work that I’m trying to do as a storyteller. Hopefully Disclosure can contribute to that, and inspire storytellers and filmmakers to tell stories differently. Not just the beautiful humanity of trans folks, but the stories of everyone who has had their humanity called into question.”

What is the Goal of Disclosure?

For people who watch the film, Laverne Cox hopes that Disclosure offers an intense focus on trans people first: focusing on trans people as the subjects of the story, but also as the first intended audience for the film. She also wants the film to be a true celebration of trans stories. Next, Cox hopes that the film serves as an education for people who simply don’t know about the history of trans misrepresentation, dehumanization, and abuse in the entertainment industry, particularly the harmful tropes and “jokes” that have made up so much of trans representation in the history of cinema.

“This film can be a guide for everyone who wants to tell trans stories,” she said. In addition, she hopes the general public will be able to unravel their misconceptions about who trans people are by watching the film. “Disclosure can give you that clarity.”

Laverne Cox’s Love and Passion for Storytelling

Moore wanted to know more about Cox’s inspiration for her work as an artist and actress.

“It’s love and it’s passion that have always kept me going,” she said. I love telling stories. I love acting. And I love having my work as an artist be connected to something that is bigger than me. I’m an artist first, and that’s why Disclosure means so much to me.”

She also spoke to the feeling that she’s been chosen “by a higher power or something greater than myself. My prayer this year has been being able to take on that responsibility with more lightness, with more joy. I want to understand that responsibility, but hold it like a light garment. For whatever reason I’ve been chosen, and as long as I’m here, I’m supposed to answer the call.”

Quoting Oprah, Cox added, “I’m not living the dream because I’m special. I’m living the dream because I answered the call of the dream. The dream is right there waiting for you, and you just have to claim it. For me, that dream has always been there. And if it’s right there for me, then it’s right there for everyone, and I must answer that call.”

“We have to be able to tell the truth about all the forces that are trying to divide us and conquer,” Cox said, speaking to the idea that many people act as if white supremacy, systemic racism, and other dangerous mentalities do not exist, or are not as widespread as they truly are. “We have to be able to tell the truth so that we can align with the reason that we’re here. All the oppression and discrimination–that’s not why we’re here.”

This powerful event closed the 2020 Annual Summit for Women Moving Millions, a perfect way to end two days of encouraging speakers and presentations. The theme of this year’s summit–The Power of Us–rings true, especially in today’s political climate. As we keep working toward representation and inclusion in film, entertainment, and every sector in our lives, we can continue to work toward an equitable future.

About the WMM Annual Summit: On September 10th and 11th, 2020, Women Moving Millions held its annual summit. The two-day virtual event offered sessions for WMM members only on September 10th, followed by an action-packed day open to invited non-members and prospects on September 11th. Sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and PJT Partners, the 2020 summit focused on community, connection, and collaboration as tools to working toward a more just and equitable world.


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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist. A Maryland transplant by way of Florida, DC, Ireland, Philadelphia, and -- most recently -- Salt Lake City, she has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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