dream hampton’s devastating new documentary opens in a manner that reflects our era. The subject of the documentary, Shelley “Treasure” Hilliard, introduces herself on a webcam. She meant to use the video the way many of us these days make a video for a dating site. Unbeknownst to her, the video would ultimately serve as the introduction to her cinematic memorial.
Hilliard was a 19 year old Detroiter and an African-American transwoman. After she signs off, we cut to an empty lot in Detroit, accompanied by spare haunting harp music. From there we meet Lyniece Nelson, Shelley’s mother, who tries to calmly relate the details of recovering her daughter’s dismembered body. Emotion overcomes her. The moment hits like a freight train and at that point "Treasure: From Tragedy to Trans Justice; Mapping a Detroit Story" has you. The film does not release you even after its 63-minute running time has elapsed.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the documentary’s timing is uncanny. Begun three years ago, it seems as if the piece was planned to come out now as #BlackLivesMatter & #BlackTransLivesMatter have become perennial trending topics and celebrity transwomen have graced the covers of national publications. This 19 year old’s story manages to seamlessly combine the two big issues of our young century: the fluidity of identity & the manifold ways citizens can become the prey of their own government.
And then there’s Detroit. The city has come to stand in for the failure of the American city, but "Treasure" has no time for such facile simplifications. It is clear that the film was made by a Detroit native. There’s no bloviating about the city’s storied history & fall from grace, and the film is refreshingly free of pornographic depictions of urban blight. Detroit is a character in this film, but it isn’t the antagonist.
hampton skillfully tells us who Shelley was, and also provides a compelling portrait of the Detroit transgender community. Wisely, hampton eschews voiceover narration. You hear her voice from behind the camera only once and very briefly. She lets the members of the community, like Emani Love, speak for themselves. Anyone complaining that cis-gendered folks only care about transgendered people when they are dead would be hard pressed to make the claim stick after viewing the documentary.
Shelley’s family also emerge powerfully as complex human beings that defy the stereotyping fiction films typically dole out to African-Americans. Defying the typical story, Shelley was met with love and support from her mother and sisters after coming out as transgender. That they cherished her so makes the loss they feel all the more gut-wrenching.
There is very little onscreen text, no graphics. hampton knows it is unnecessary. She also knows when to stop the interviews and let the audience absorb what they’ve heard while letting us see her hometown through her eyes.
I won’t go into the particulars of Shelley’s death. That should be saved for viewers to experience on their own. Let it suffice that her horrific death is as much on the hands of the criminal justice system as it is on the men who butchered her. There are no easy answers as to why it happened to Shelley Hilliard. And unlike Nick Broomfield’s fine "Tales of the Grim Sleeper" (a companion film to "Treasure" in many ways) there is no monstrous individual at work here even if the events are themselves monstrous. Transphobia, racism, classism, the state’s indifference to the suffering of minorities, and the latter-day Jim Crow of zero tolerance drug policy are the monsters. And their disembodiment & facelessness make them terrifying.
In the end, hampton chooses not to end with an image of Hilliard, but of one of her sisters, haunted by the loss, but moving forward in her life. And while the film cannot muster a happy ending, the scenes of transwomen in the Ruth Ellis Center (a haven and community center in Detroit for the trans community – Shelley was once a member) linger. We see them laugh, dance, organize and (if I may employ an oft-invoked phrase of late) “live their truth”. It will not take away the pain of Shelley Hilliard’s family, but as a viewer, seeing them live their lives feels like victory.
Brandon Wilson is a writer and director living in Los Angeles. Find him on Twitter at @GeniusBastard