Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez star in "Tangerine."


In a year of “Transparent,” LaVerne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, transgender people have been making history in the entertainment industry.

That historic year would be continued if either Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez became the first trans actresses to receive Oscar nominations for their roles in Sean Baker’s “Tangerine.” The company’s distributor, Magnolia Pictures, is mounting the first-ever awards-season campaign for trans actresses.

“This has come out into the world when the trans community and trans movements are very part of the zeitgeist,” Baker said in a phone interview from London, where “Tangerine” was competing for a British Film Institute Award. “And we did not know it was going to be this way when we set down this road two-and-a-half years ago, but it must have been brewing in the zeitgeist because all of these things happened at the same time.”

Baker, a filmmaker based in Los Angeles, is bringing “Tangerine” for its Madison premiere to the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, for a free showing Saturday at 7 p.m., and will answer questions afterwards from the audience.

“Tangerine” follows two transgender prostitutes on Christmas Eve. One is hunting the woman that her pimp/boyfriend has been cheating on her with, while the other is trying to get to a singing gig that she’s hopes will be her big breakthrough.

If that sounds like heavy subject matter, in practice “Tangerine” is a wildly enjoyable and empathetic comedy, with Taylor and Rodriguez playing entertainingly broad and yet sympathetic figures.

“The film gives a collection of marginalized figures some wit, passion and even some dignity,” I wrote in my original review.

Baker said he didn’t intend to make a comedy when he started researching the lives of transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles. But, meeting Taylor as she was transitioning into a woman, she convinced him otherwise.

“She asked me to basically make a comedy,” Baker said. “She wanted this film to be just as much entertainment for the girls out on the corner as much as for anybody else. She didn’t want me to make such a 'plight of' movie that it wouldn’t be entertaining to the people it would be about.”

Using humor ended up being a more honest approach to how these characters live their lives than one might think, Baker said.

“We all use humor to cope, right?” he said. “That’s how we get by. What I noticed in those research days, hanging out with the girls, they had to do that to even a greater degree. That’s what it made it more comfortable to go that direction, even though I knew it was a risky move, especially being a cis gender man from outside this world. I was starting to think if I don’t go this way, I’m going to be making the most dishonest film ever. And I want to make an honest film.”

Taking that lighter approach, while still being honest, has made the film much more accessible and relatable than Baker originally thought it would be. Baker said he’s reluctant to label “Tangerine” as a “trans movie,” any more than his previous film “Actress” was a “woman’s movie.” But he’s happy if his film has an impact on people’s perceptions.

“What I get a lot from audiences is that they connected so much on a human level with those two characters,” he said. “They go home with these characters at the end of the night. If that helps in any way make that move from awareness into acceptance, it feels great to be part of that process.”

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.