I like to think of myself as a storyteller, but I have never quite figured out how to tell a murder story.
2015 is the deadliest year for transgender women on record, with 22 murdered so far that we know – 19 of them women of color. Many others have not been factored into that statistic because of misgendering media reports and/or family members.
Statistic. That’s what telling these stories sometimes feels like. Another hashtag. #ElishaWalker. #KeishaJenkins. #ZellaZiona
dream hampton bellowed Shelley Hilliard’s in Treasure: From Tragedy To Trans Justice, Mapping A Detroit Story. The documentary tells of the Detroit woman’s horrific murder at the hands of drug dealers after she was coerced into entrapping them by police who then revealed her identity during the arrest. It’s a story no less relevant 4 years after the events it details, as the Black Lives Matter movement that began in response to the death of Trayvon Martin not much later continues in full force, as does the push from the oft-silenced communities of Black women, queer and trans folk to make sure this time we mean ALL Black lives. Even Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders felt the demand to name Black women victims during the last Democratic Presidential debate rather than only the traditionally noted casualties of anti-Black racist violence – Black men – and hampton’s storytelling furthers that call.
But this is not a murder story. Perhaps hampton doesn’t know how to tell one either, or perhaps she knows better than to try. Treasure is a love story. Of Shelley’s love of life. Of her families’ – adoptive and biological – love of her, in defiance of the prevailing narrative of the Black family’s inability to practice acceptance. Of hampton’s love of justice and her commitment to honoring truth. With minimal title cards and no voiceover, hampton tells the tale by allowing it to tell itself. Shelley’s tragic ending remains the central event, but it is not the story.
Instead, more energy is required to bear witness to a biological mother who still grieves for her child, taken from her too soon. Her house mother reflecting on the life Shelley loved and the time they spent together, the importance of which perhaps wasn’t acknowledged enough while it still could be. A dancing, laughing and surviving trans community in the heart of Detroit – a city whose narrative is also too often reduced to a murder story. An organization in the Ruth Ellis Center dedicated to ensuring such devastation does not happen again.
A police system built upon the hypercriminalization of Black and trans bodies so much so that any one of them is disposable enough to haphazardly throw to the wolves, even as Ralph Godbee, the Detroit chief of police at the time, acknowledges in the film that what transpired would have taken “a serious lack of understanding or pure malice to identify a confidential informant.” A societal transantagonism that requires not only the murder of the deviant bodies that cross you, but the mutilization, decapitation and burning of them, too.
hampton paints a portrait so aware of the influences that contribute to these tragedies – of anti-Black and transantagonistic state apparatuses, a violent resistance to the queering of gender, the struggles inherent to discovering one’s gender in an anti-trans society even within a home that is generally accepting, survival sex work in a sexist world, the destructive power of the war on drugs – that to minfinite it to a murder story is to woefully underestimate its power. Shelley is dead, but the film gives life to her once again, as it does to so many other trans women of color who’ve been turged into helpless statistics and hashtags. Treasure opens with a clip of Shelley breathily speaking to us through the camera, “hey guys, I’m Shelley,“ and you can feel her breathing the whole way through.
Treasure doesn’t just say it’s a true story, it is. In true life, love is complicated, and so is Shelley’s family’s relationship to her transition, the state’s relationship to Black and trans folk, and our relationship to gender. It isn’t a fun story, but it isn’t just a murder, either, and Black trans peoples’ stories deserve this level of depth and balance. I may never know how to tell a murder story. They don’t need telling.
Upcoming screenings of the film can be found on www.treasuredoc.com. The next is Thursday, October 29, 2015 at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City.