THE STORY – This is the definitive history of New York City’s Meatpacking District, told by the transgender women of color who created its history. The now corporate, flush façade of the neighborhood was plastered over the world of transgender sex workers who lived, worked, loved, and died there. “The Stroll” was where trans women of color, shunned out of the workforce, turned to for a means of survival. Their perspective and insights constitute a rigorous archive of how heavy policing, violence both threatened and realized, and mass gentrification combined to create Manhattan’s built environment today.
THE CAST – N/A
THE TEAM – Kristen Lovell & Zackary Drucker (Directors)
THE RUNNING TIME – 84 Minutes
Joy is a particularly difficult emotion for a film to evoke from its audience. It can come about for many different reasons, but, as anyone who watches many movies will tell you, it rarely occurs. In the case of “The Stroll,” the joy it radiates comes from seeing something not often found in film: a marginalized group of people being given the space to tell their own stories on their own terms. In this case, this documentary features the testimonies and perspectives of transgender women of color who worked as sex workers in New York’s pre-gentrified Meatpacking District, and, notably, the film is co-directed by one of their own, Kristen Lovell. It’s a smartly structured film that begins with looking at the specific experience of this group of trans women before smartly and gradually widening its scope to cover America’s modern-day trans liberation movement. “The Stroll” is both jubilant and sorrowful in examining a changing city and a disrespected group of people, but it’s always completely honest.
In the 1980s and 90s, the stretch of 14th Street in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District was the central hub for a collection of trans women of color who were sex workers, who affectionately referred to the area as “The Stroll.” This film of the same name allows the women who were there to tell their stories and, in doing so, explain the importance of Black trans women and trans women of color to the very foundation of this country.
The filmmakers seem keenly aware that general audiences will almost certainly have a predetermined idea about what a documentary about sex workers might be like. Smartly, “The Stroll” dispels any possible preconceived notions or judgments by introducing the interviewees via their more positive experiences from their time working in the titular area. But, even for viewers who may be watching with a less socially dictated idea of sex work, these stories are refreshingly heartwarming. Specifically, the tales of a strong, bonded community of women who always looked out for each other offer moving perspectives of a job path that many Americans look on with — at best — pity. If anything, it’s almost a shame that the film is so short because listening to these women tell funny, uplifting stories from their past is such a delight, and more time spent with them would’ve been appreciated.
But not all of the stories of this era are happy. The filmmakers ensure to give respectful space to honor the women of the Stroll who, like too many Black trans women, didn’t live to see their 40s or 50s. The film is also smart to put their deaths into proper perspective, highlighting the racist, bigoted policing and governmental policies which led to both the necessity of sex work for these women’s survival and also the dangers they faced on the job. Most brilliantly of all, the film expands the territory it covers to grow from just the single city block where these women worked to look at the experience of trans women in New York at large (and most damningly, the scorn they faced from the greater LGBTQ+ community, particularly cis gay men). Eventually, the film even grows to discuss the current fight for trans rights nationwide. It’s a subtly done, smart choice that helps the audience understand the importance of documenting the history of these sex workers, as their stories serve as both an example of trans history and clearly had a long-lasting impact on the ongoing trans rights movement.
“The Stroll” is a testament to how important and necessary it is for underprivileged groups to have the ability to tell their own stories. It’s an immensely watchable visual history that shines a well-deserved spotlight on a group of people that society has been more than happy to push into the shadows.