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Synopsis: Local policeman Mr. Kool (Ed Bernard) is everyone’s favorite neighborhood cop in a poor black community in Galveston, Texas. So it comes as a heartbreaking shock when he turns up shot to death in cold blood one night near the playground. The only witness was five-year-old Tommy (Anthony Wilson), who was so traumatized by the incident that he’s refusing to say a word. When the local police seem slow on the tail of the killer, Tommy’s big brother H.J. (Ahmad Nurradin) and his friends take it upon themselves to gather a list of suspects. Soon, the trail leads them to the mysterious Billy Most (Lincoln Kilpatrick), just out of prison on an arrest made by Mr. Kool himself.
Although I’ve mentioned several times on this blog that I’m not a real big fan of the cinema of the 1970s, I felt it was important for this particular series to go outside of my classic comfort zone and include a review of a film from the first post-Code decade. That’s because I simply do not feel right holding an LGBT blogathon and only covering decades in which the T (trans or transgender) portion of that acronym was essentially nonexistent on the silver screen. I mean sure, if you throw cross-dressing and drag under the trans umbrella, you’ve got material dating back to the very foundation of the medium of film. But the transgender identity doesn’t stop at gender performativity the way drag and cross-dressing do (if you’ll pardon me for the gross oversimplification); being transgender means that one’s internal gender identity differs from the gender one was assigned at birth, an assignment usually made based on one’s biological sex. To be as inclusive as possible, I wanted to seek out and highlight a depiction of a transgender individual fitting this definition. That was nigh on impossible to do if I limited myself to films made before 1970.
Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, transgender individuals have not been represented accurately or positively in film… well, ever, really. Yes, there are of course exceptions, but they are few and far between, and even the current norm is nowhere near exemplary. One of the first and still most pervasive utilizations of transgender characters in film has been the trope of the “transgender killer,” an antagonist whose “confused” gender identity/expression is typically used as a metaphor for a deeper, more dangerous psychological disturbance. Think Psycho, Homicidal, Dressed to Kill, Sleepaway Camp, and the most egregious offender, Silence of the Lambs. Needless to say, continually portraying transgender people as crazed serial murderers is neither accurate nor positive. Unfortunately, Together Brothers, directed for 20th Century Fox by William A. Graham, is yet another example of this trope in use.
Marking the first appearance of a transgender person of color in a motion picture, the character of Billy Most is presented as your by-the-book deranged and “confused” murderer who guns down a beloved neighborhood cop, seemingly for no reason. However, once Billy is allowed to have her say, she’s given some pretty interesting motives for her crime. “My whole life, they done laughed at me,” she tells her drag queen confidant Maria. “Treat me like I wasn’t human. Nobody let you be somebody.” Then she explains her pivotal interaction with Mr. Kool, the officer she later kills. In arresting Billy for a crime (which I won’t specify, even though I’m spoiling most of the rest of this movie for you), it turns out Mr. Kool publicly stripped Billy naked for no discernible reason other than to humiliate her. “Why did Kool have to take off my clothes?” Billy sobs. “Why’d he have to shame my ass?” She then breaks down, kneels before Maria and asks, “What am I?!? Some kind of beast?”
Wait. Hold up. This cop, who’s presented throughout the entire movie as this bastion of goodness, who encouraged kids to stay off the streets and avoid drugs and alcohol, who the whole neighborhood worshiped, arrested a transwoman and then publicly undressed her? That’s not cool, Mr. Kool.
I mean, I’m not saying Billy was justified in killing Mr. Kool for his act of brutality against her. Murder is never justified, blah blah blah. But I doubt Billy had any legal recourse in lodging a formal complaint against Mr. Kool. After all, according to a study released by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 48.3% of transgender people of color who were victims of a hate crime reported that police were indifferent to their complaints, compared to 7.7% of cisgender and white survivors. On the whole, hate crime victims within the LGBT community reported 61% of police attitudes as indifferent, abusive or deterrent. And this wasn’t in 1974, this was in 2010. Add to that the fact that Billy would’ve had to bring charges against a police officer and you begin to understand why she believed her only method of achieving justice was by killing Mr. Kool.
Although it doesn’t show its transgender character in a positive light, I have to give this movie credit for at least presenting Billy as a somewhat sympathetic character. Unfortunately she too often sways into pathetic territory to really be classified as a step forward for trans representations. Overall, though, this was a fantastic movie. It’s blaxploitation, yeah, but the characters were actually allowed to be people instead of one-dimensional, overly-violent or sexualized caricatures. They’re allowed to be happy and to cry and to have emotions that real people have; imagine that! The soundtrack by Barry White was perfect, and the directing got downright Hitchcockian at times (always a compliment). But above all it was the stellar acting that really blew me away. Ahmad Nurradin as the lead character H.J. was particularly enthralling, especially for a seventeen-year-old kid who’d never acted before and only appeared in one film after. Lincoln Kilpatrick as Billy Most was also completely captivating every moment he was on screen. I picked this movie pretty much at random but found myself utterly surprised by it; don’t you love it when that happens? For some reason it doesn’t seem to be available on DVD anywhere, but at least you can watch it free (with commercials) on Hulu. I thoroughly recommend it.
Together Brothers (1974) – 4.5/5 stars