By Matthew Hammett Knott | Indiewire February 6, 2014 at 9:59AM
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.
People around the world were shocked, but for Marta Cunningham, then an actor living in LA, such a reaction was only the beginning. The more she looked into the case, the more she uncovered a web of complications and nuance that just wasn’t being given a fair hearing by the media, let alone the courts.
Fast forward five years and Marta Cunningham found herself at Sundance, premiering her debut feature as director and producer, “Valentine Road”. The film is a deftly woven chronicle of the Larry King case that shrewdly expands the canvas of a story previously filed away under LGBT tragedy.
But how did Cunningham arrive at such a conclusion, let alone make the journey from shocked observer to acclaimed filmmaker? I asked her to explain.
Directing is a long-held ambition of hers
Secretly I always wanted to be a director. I didn’t really ever talk about it with anyone. I grew up in a very academic setting, I did well as a student. I went to Georgetown for a semester but it wasn’t me, so I left college and moved to Los Angeles. Started dancing, acting and modelling. I was out there, doing things, and it felt like the one place in the world where you can show up, and if you have a great idea you can put forward that great idea and make it happen.
She decided to go to film school
I was looking for a subject matter to do the application. When I came across the story about Larry King, I just wept. I was so connected with this child and I felt so upset that he was misunderstood. The level of misunderstanding kept compounding. Articles already blaming him for his death, not seeing it as a hate crime. What was going on? It was too upsetting.
She took matters into her own hands
I bought a pro cam, some tape, found out when the hearing was for Brandon McInerney and drove up to Ventura County in a matter of days. I went to the local high school and met with the head of the GSA, undercover with a baseball cap and a back pack, ripped jeans, trying to pretend I was one of the crowd. This teacher was nervous about me visiting her because it was such a homophobic and transphobic campus. She told me she had some students who knew Larry, also from the LGBT community but not out. So I talked to some of those kids and that was my first shoot.
Things escalated when she attended the Brandon McInerney hearing
Seeing this gangly teen who was potentially going to get sent away for the rest of his life - getting in touch with the fact that I thought I was going to feel one way about him and ending up feeling another way - that shocked me. He was fourteen. He looked like a fourteen year old. It was disturbing. It didn’t feel like a country I was familiar with. How did this child go from being this rockstar student and athlete with all these things going for him to killing another child as a white supremacist? How does that happen?
She realized that she needed to dig deeper
I wasn’t just a reporter trying to get the story. In Oxnard, I would take the families out to dinner and just get them to talk so I could get an intimate feeling of how these kids lived and how they saw things. I wanted that to permeate the experience of the viewer.
Being a woman of color worked to her advantage
I’m bi-racial, like Larry, and I think it had a huge positive effect when it came to the kids. When so much of the population in Oxnard is black, Asian, Latino, they just felt more comfortable around me. All the kids I met had friends of color. What I really enjoyed and learned making this film is how race, gender and sexual orientation are shifting in the eyes of our youth. They don’t look at people from the same standpoint as when I was growing up. So I wanted to make sure that was in the film.
But not everyone in Oxnard was so open-minded
When you’re a woman of color, sometimes you know ahead of time that this person who didn’t understand Larry is not going to understand you. You’re not going to be on the same wavelength. So you narrow the scope to what you can relate to. I told myself and my crew, we’re doing this for Larry. If he can sit in that classroom and get abuse from the teacher as well as the students, we can do this for a couple of hours.
She didn’t want to exclude such views from the film
I never wanted to make a film that was preaching to the choir. We have to start a dialogue in our country if we’re really going to change things - make films that really question our morals and ethics. We can’t just keep burying our heads in the sand.
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.
“Valentine Road” has recently been nominated for a GLAAD award for Outstanding Documentary. It will continue its festival tour in 2014.
Matthew Hammett Knott is a writer and filmmaker based in London. Follow him on Twitter.