Exclusive: Interview with CeCe McDonald & Jacqueline Gares of ‘Free CeCe’


At the Los Angeles Film Festival, we got to sit down and chat with Director Jacqueline Gares and CeCe McDonald about their film Free CeCe. We talked about transgender issues in America, the system of mass incarceration and Executive Producer Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black). 

Director Jac Gares on Set

Obviously Cece’s story inspired the film, but what about CeCe made you think this is a story you need to tell?

Jacqueline: I think I was just surprised when I heard about CeCe’s story, that it was actually true and happening to begin with. That someone could be attacked on the street and in the course of defending themselves commit an act that was a self-defense act as far as I can understand it, and was denied a self-defense claim. It really made me look into self-defense laws in our country. But I didn’t want to make that kind of documentary. I wanted to make a documentary that focused on the human story of CeCe Mcdonald because I felt in order to fully understand the subject of self-defense claims, I would need to go deeper and find out not only what happened, but who CeCe is as a person and what was going on in her life at the time. And I found out yeah she was with her family, her chosen family, going to the store. An act that is so mundane that we all you know do every day, but what people don’t tend to realize is that trans people will do that at midnight, you know, because there are less people in the store then, and less chance of harassment. So the idea that you know it was the summer months when this attack happened, a time when people are wearing less clothing and skin is more available, that trans people are subject to more street harassment during the summer months. So all of these things came together for me in a way that was so powerful, that I felt that I had to tell Cece’s story in a very laid out way, a very methodical way and I hope I achieved that.

CeCe, you talk about gender policing in the film and that really struck with me. What was that like growing up, dealing with parents that don’t accept you for your chosen identity?

CeCe: It was really frustrating because I feel like if I had the support of my family that my life would have went in a different direction. When we look at the cases of LGBTQI youth, the homelessness rates are so high because we get disowned or pushed out of our families. And not just here, but all across the globe because of religious values and ideologies that tell people you can’t be loved or you can’t be accepted and that was the same thing with me, was like this barrier of Christian values and being in combat with who I was and my identity. And for a long time I tried to be someone I wasn’t just to appease my family and to make them want to love me or make me feel accepted in some way and so when I began to understand who I was, I slowly began to draw away from my family both intentionally and unintentionally because they were pushing me away from them with the language they were using and with the ways that they would say things to me or make fun of me. So you know even to have my mom admit to being an in-home bully was really big for me because that was admittance to like me not being able to be the person I needed to be and being a teenager you go through the rebellious phase. I feel like I was even more rebellious because I was like, ‘Hey what does it matter? People say I’m going to hell. Let me fuck up some shit, know what I’m saying?’ so that played a big part for me in the way that I see life. But also I needed to be myself and I understood that way early on in life, and so as I began to draw away from my family, I began to run away and I just began to slowly distance myself until I ended up moving out of the state altogether. But it was really hard for CeCe & Laverne_Sittingme because I felt like I couldn’t be the person that I needed to be for myself, and when I did, I was punished for it. So I don’t know, it was just hard. But I’m glad that I got a chance to get out of that situation, because a lot of people don’t. When we look at the suicide rates of people in the LGBTQI community, a lot of that has to do with rejection of family and friends and not being able to have that support that a lot of other people get just for being in existence. It’s like some things that LGBTQI folks cannot attain. Some privileges, some other people can’t get accepted. Even with gay and lesbians, that’s being accepted into society now. You have gay republicans now. I feel like even with that, like there’s still both communities that say you’re still invalid, you’re still irrelevant, you still don’t matter and even if you are a gay republican, I don’t care because it’s invalid, it doesn’t matter. So I just feel like some privileges, some people can’t obtain and they feel that they can. With gender policing, it’s really frustrating because a lot of people go through it. The way people raise their kids, like we don’t have options of what toys we want to play with or what clothes we want to wear or what colors you like, because growing up as a “boy”, I couldn’t like colors like purple and pink. I just think that people should think about the ways in which we police gender. Even when we don’t think we are, we really are.

It’s something that society teaches us from birth. Even before someone is born.

CeCe: Yes!

Going back to your family, I thought the film was really powerful because with your mom, you could see the forgiveness starting to happen for you. How difficult is that? What’s that process like of learning to forgive your mom for some of the things she’s done?

CeCe: My spiritual connection with myself and with the universe has made me grow into a very bright, intelligent woman. And I feel that a lot of the self-harm I did to myself and a lot of the ways I treated other people was based on the way that I was treated. And I am a firm believer in karma in life. You can say that that is the basis of my spirituality. What happens to you comes back to you. What goes around comes around basically. I feel like also with my family specifically they were, just like how I was raised, they were raised in toxicity. Like they were raised with those white Christian values, they were told to be this way or be that way. I remember my mom telling me stories about how they used to get punished for wearing make-up and things like that. So that type of toxicity was internalized, oh now this is how I was being raised, and now I have to keep these values going because look at me. I didn’t turn out a bad person and people internalize that and push that onto future generations. So when we were born and then we began to grow up, they were inflicting what happened to them onto us. Not just my mom, but my aunts and uncles, they kept those values going and I was a person that noticed that I don’t like these values. They put me in a really dark, bad place in my life, I mean to the point that I was suicidal. It’s hard for them to believe that this was something that really took me to a dark place in my life, these values that they were pushing onto me that was all based off Christianity. And all I wanted was my mom to do – me and my mom was so close, which was crazy growing up – and a part of me knew that she knew. I’m hella feminine, I’m pretty sure that she’s catching my drift but I feel like she had these values instilled in her that she had some type of combative internal thing going on. Because she had to keep these values but also love her child, but how can she love her child if her child is this way, she was taught to have these values, and so I don’t know but what I’ve learned is that me being angry at somebody isn’t helping me. Because they’re living their life right? They don’t have to worry about the pain, they don’t_CeCe Returns To Chicago-19 have to worry about the struggle, maybe they were concerned, maybe they did care for you but the harm that you were doing to yourself, in my case the harm that I was doing to myself, of the recklessness that I had towards life in general, you know I didn’t care about life, I didn’t care about my own existence. But that didn’t affect my family. They went on with their lives while I was struggling. So I had to realize that if I wanted to… in order for me to move on with my life, I have to let go of these things. I talk about this all the time – forgiveness doesn’t mean that you have to erase the history of what you went through. Use that as something to make you stronger and to live through it and to share that experience with other people that they can also grow from it. And that’s why I do what I do because I want people to understand you know what it was like to grow up and be so jaded, to be so angry, to be so non-caring about your life and others and just wanting life to be over. And then to turn that around, to have to go through this whole situation, me and Jacks [Jacqueline – the Director] talk all the time about the incident and how when it happened, I used to pray for me and for Dean. I used to pray that I can forgive him and hope that I can be forgiven, right? Because you know I cant take away that I have taken someone’s life and that this happened, you know. I can’t sit in life and wallow on a situation that was out of my control and that was aimed towards me through violence and through hate, right? So I have the right to be angry. And I can use that in life to be angry at white people for whatever, because this white person did this to me, but I couldn’t do that. Because I love Jacks. And I know that she identifies as white, and I have a lot of white friends. And I can’t have this one thing represent a whole community because that’s not how it is. I definitely encourage white people to acknowledge privileges that they attain that most communities can’t, but that doesn’t mean that I should be violent or angry towards them because this one incident happened. So I use that in a positive way, and when I pray I will just pray instead like, ‘Dean, I am sorry that this happened and I hope that you can forgive me,’ and I’m still dealing with the trauma of this incident. And I can be angry that this happened, I was violently attacked. People were using really derogatory statements towards me, I could have internalized all of that and been an angry, jaded person all over again and not use this situation to look at life and to challenge the way we see each other as humans and think about what forgiveness is. Because a lot of times people don’t think about forgiveness. They hold these issues in them and they internalize them and then there’s a lot of self-harm, there’s a lot of self-hatred, there’s a lot of internalized racism, there’s a lot of internalized homophobia and trans phobia. And all of that has come from the way people have treated them, and them just being like, ‘Oh I can’t do nothing about it,’ and for me I was like I have to let this stuff go because it’s so toxic, it’s like breaking me down literally mentally and physically. It was making me unhealthy. I had to let go of things that people did to me so that I can grow for myself.

The film mentions a quote by Angela Davis that I thought was really profound where she said, “The history of prison reform is the history of prison expansion.” Can you touch on mass incarceration and the issues with that?

Jacqueline: Well one of the first things, I mean of course Angela Davis – that quote is so powerful – and one of the things that struck me about Angela Davis’s work is how it affected CeCe while she was incarcerated. CeCe was reading Angela Davis while she was in prison. Just get your head around that for five minutes [laughs]. So I’ve been fascinated with ending mass incarceration for a very long time. My first project that I started to do, which I may go back to, addresses an alternative to mass incarceration called “Drew House” in Brooklyn. It looks like any other house in Brooklyn, but this provides residential housing with supportive services wrapped around it. So I was thinking about that documentary and thinking about mass incarceration in a really deep way, but it wasn’t until I started talking to CeCe and reading, and CeCe said, ‘I tell everybody to read the new Jim Crow, read anything by Angela Davis including All Prisons Obsolete, which is where that quote comes from, and just talking to CeCe and other people in the film like Eric Stanley, I started to understand prison abolishment in the same kind of deep way, that that is the issue that needs addressed. It’s not prison reform. It’s not even ending mass incarceration. It is abolishing the entire system and what activists mean when they say that is to try to imagine solutions, and not punishing people. What would prisons look like? How different would they look? Well, we wouldn’t have prisons so that’s the funny thing. It would be a completely different system to have something like Drew House where it’s supportive housing, where people are getting counseling. People are not being punished. It’s taking punishment out and it’s addressing what the root cause of the issue was and it’s also feeding community. It’s not eviscerating community by taking people out and policing the people that are there. And that’s like what kind of world do you want to live in? I want to live in that world.

My heart broke when you accepted the plea deal, but knowing how our justice system works, I probably would’ve done the same thing. And that’s something that a lot of people don’t understand, is that it’s not black and white, guilty or not guilty, there’s so much in between in terms of what you can be sentenced to or going through a trial. What went through your mind that day?

CeCe: It was a lot going on for me that day. I had woke up with this really, really bad migraine. And I get them often, but they come very far apart from each other, but this day I just woke up to the point where I was feeling nauseous, and I was like, ‘Crap, I have to go to court. I can’t cancel it. This isn’t a job or doctors appointment, I have to be here.’ And I just felt the pressures. And at this point, a new attorney was added and he was… I don’t know, I don’t feel he was doing anything in his best interest other than telling me to take this plea deal. And Hirsch wanted to make sure it was something I wanted to do, but I feel like deep down inside, people who have those occupations, they know when it comes to race, who is going to be able to get away with what and I feel like and also, with Minnesota – Minneapolis to be specific – didn’t have any laws that protected me as a black person. There were cases of self-defense in Minneapolis but those cases were of people who were white who did something to another person, and I believe it was like 5 or 6 cases of people in Minneapolis literally when I was out on bail during the case, and a man – some guy robbed this lady. And a man chased after him and the robber had pulled out his weapon and the guy shot him and killed him, and didn’t see a day in jail because he used a self-defense claim, and of course he was a white man. And so that also put me in a really bad Laverne Interviews Cece In Prisonplace because now I’m questioning like, I’m really starting to see it. Not only was I reading it, not only was I getting this information and having pictures of it in my mind like, ‘Ok I understand,’ but this was a living actual representation of like how the system is beneficial for some people and not for others, and I just broke down crying because I just knew that my life was over, like I knew that like me doing this was not for me. I can’t say that I can defend myself and it’s not just because the criminal injustice system played a part in it but it also has to do with my race, and I tell people all the time, when you think of the prison industrial complex, and like it’s intersectional components, a lot of that is based off of race and religion and sex and class. And I am like at the bottom of the totem pole, in all things, in each classification so I just felt like, ‘Shit, I am fucked all over.’ And I didn’t know how to deal with that. But also people should know, the criminal justice system isn’t broken. It’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. These systems have been in existence since the abolishment of slavery, you know people think that prisons have been around for forever, they actually haven’t. It came with the abolishment of slavery, which was not that long ago, what 400 something years ago? So mass incarceration started when the abolishment of slavery and then white folk were like well if we can’t have them as slaves, let’s create a bunch of crazy ass laws to keep them. And then they had the prisoner leasing system, right so after they would incarcerate them, white people would come in and say, ‘Hey I need somebody to sow my fields or my crops or pick cotton or whatever, and the jails would say, ‘You pay this much and you can have this many black people.’ They couldn’t say slaves but, it was slavery. It was a form of slavery that was established in a way that it wasn’t slavery in word or on paper, but it was definitely slavery in ethics. It’s crazy because that’s how these systems are made.

How did Laverne Cox’s involvement come about and how was that to have her on board?

Jacqueline: She came on very early, at the inception, we really developed it together fully and Laverne has an Executive Producer credit in the film because without Laverne Cox this movie would not have got made. Her voice is ultimately everything in this movie. We’ve always been in collaboration, it has been such a rich collaboration with me and the funny thing is that we have always been on the same page. So it’s incredible. It’s been one of the most beautiful collaborations ever. I’m so thankful.