Mononymic filmmaker and activist Tourmaline watched as protesters moved in a sea of white to gather at the steps of the Brooklyn Museum on June 14. More than 15,000 people came together for Black trans lives, an action that Tourmaline found powerful: “Everyone was asked to wear white for the protest, and it made it so readily identifiable how many people are saying, ‘Yes, we agree this thing that you’ve been saying for years — which is you deserve to be not just alive but fully alive — is real for us too, and we’re going to spend our energy to vocalize that.’”
This moment of mainstream acceptance comes a year after the premiere of “Salacia,” an art video that Tourmaline — an assistant to the director on the award-winning film “Mudbound” — wrote, directed and produced. The short was commissioned by the Brooklyn Museum and cultural program High Line Art, and focuses on the life of Mary Jones, a trans woman who was outed by the New York press in the 1800s. Tourmaline’s sibling Che Gossett found Jones’ court transcripts in the New York City municipal house of records while the director was working on a film about gay liberation activist and drag queen Marsha P. Johnson.
“Salacia,” a 16mm experimental film, uses the style of Black folktales to elevate and amplify Jones’ beauty as she discovers her power amid transphobia and systemic racism. MoMA screens the film as part of its permanent collection.
Looking back on the project a year later, Tourmaline says she thinks the subject matter has only grown timelier and more pressing. “It feels like a paradigm shift where a lot of people who came before me and who are here now created a moment for other people to catch up with us,” she says. “It’s real simple things, like Black trans people deserve to be alive, and we deserve to be joyful in that life.”
A pillar of Tourmaline’s work is that Black trans people also deserve to be in the spotlight. She makes films that lift up women from the past, like Jones and Johnson, and contemporary women such as Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. Griffin-Gracy, a Black trans elder whose activism dates to Stonewall, is the subject of Tourmaline’s 2016 film “The Personal Things.”
“She was an abolitionist way before that was a trending word,” Tourmaline says of Griffin-Gracy. “In 2007, she organized a conference around Black trans people and abolition that I went to, and [it] really changed my life.”
Tourmaline is finishing a second short film about Jones, “Mary of Ill Fame,” and just debuted her Pride campaign film for beauty brand Dove, created in collaboration with Aaron Philip, a Black trans model who has cerebral palsy. The project, which highlights unsung Black and Indigenous leaders, harnesses the ethos of Tourmaline’s work.
“My artwork is about the beauty of the nobodies, the beauty of the people who are not seen,” Tourmaline says. “How it can be a beautiful, pleasurable thing to not be in the spotlight and to find our power outside of it.” Reflecting on the June 14 protests, she adds, “But it also is really cool when you’re [doing] that for years and then 15,000 people show up and say, ‘Actually, we’re here.’”