It’s been a little over 5 years to the day (June 5, 2011) since the altercation took place. Walking with a group of friends and minding her own business, 23-year-old Chrishaun Reed “CeCe” McDonald was brutally attacked outside of a bar. In self-defense, she fatally stabbed her attacker, Dean Schmitz, in the heart. While a situation like this one may not typically warrant a full-length documentary, what makes CeCe’s case stand out is the fact that she is a young trans woman of color and the way she was treated throughout her court case proves that the United States still has a long way to go in the fight for equality in the LGBTQ community as documented in the film “Free Cece!”
In what was perceived as a blatant hate crime to many, the judicial system didn’t reflect the same opinions and therefore treated CeCe more like a perpetrator than a victim. She was ordered to serve time in a men’s prison, a dangerous liability for any trans woman, after spending over three months in solitary confinement. This injustice inspired activists to rally to her defense and, with the help of acclaimed “Orange is the New Black” actress Laverne Cox, friends and family fought to bring awareness to Cece and to the larger issue of justice for all, despite one’s gender identity, race, or ethnicity.
“Free CeCe!” is not only timely in a political sense, with the gender neutral bathrooms still a hot topic of conversation, but the style in which director Jacqueline Gares captures CeCe’s story is reminiscent of the popular podcast Serial in which one is left to question the ruling of a convicted person in general. The majority of the film doesn’t spend too much time talking specifically about the case, but is dedicated to CeCe’s life after prison and how she has become a figurehead for trans women everywhere. This documentary and the work that both Laverne and CeCe have put into educating others is truly an inspiring watch. CeCe had struggled with identity issues throughout her childhood and grew up thinking that violence and aggression from others was to be expected, but now she proves that it is possible to overcome persecution. Even though at times, the hatred seems overwhelming, her story reminds us that if her story and stories like hers continue to be part of the conversation, it can and does get better.