'The Most Dangerous Year': Film Review

Inspiring and infuriating at the same time.
4/12/2019

Vlada Knowlton's documentary chronicles the battles in Washington state over a series of anti-transgender "bathroom bills."

The title of Vlada Knowlton's documentary The Most Dangerous Year refers to 2016, which the Human Rights Report declared would be "the most dangerous year" for transgender people. That's because a series of so-called "bathroom bills" were introduced in various states, designed to prohibit transgender people from using bathrooms not corresponding to their genitalia. The film focuses on Washington state, which despite its liberal reputation became an intense battleground for the issue.

Knowlton, who also narrates the doc, has a very personal connection to the subject matter, as she has a 5-year-old transgender daughter. The little girl is but one of several children whose stories are movingly told in the film. Their parents, many of whom are working to oppose the anti-transgender laws, recount how they became educated about the condition as a result.

The doc vividly illustrates the irrational fear many people have of transgender individuals, whom they apparently imagine to all be predators intent on masking their true sexuality just so they can enter bathrooms and abuse innocent victims. Knowlton suggests that these misguided folks may have gotten such ideas from films like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. Of course, when she interviews several people making such claims, none of them can actually cite any real-life examples. Nor can a Seattle police officer who says that he's never heard of such an incident in his three decades of duty.

For every villain in the story, such as Joseph Backholm, the then-head of the Family Policy Institute (why do the titles of conservative organizations so often sound like they're promoting eugenics?) who spearheaded much of the proposed legislation, there's a hero. One of them would definitely be Republican state legislator Joe Fain, whose vote against the bill would prove crucial to its defeat. "I am going to vote my principles," he declares, which is something you often hear from politicians but normally can't believe. That his stance didn't come without consequences is demonstrated by a town hall-style meeting with his constituents, many of whom make it clear that they are not happy with his vote. One red-faced, burly man even threatens to punch him in the nose.

The documentary includes interviews with many experts, including scientists and sociologists, one of whom points out that the law couldn't possibly be enforced, since it's not likely that people entering public restrooms will submit to having their genitals checked beforehand. "We all access restrooms based on gender identity," he says, quite reasonably.

At times, The Most Dangerous Year gets bogged down with its extensive footage of hearings about various bills and ballot initiatives that, however pertinent, inevitably come across with a C-SPAN dullness. But that's a minor quibble about this powerful documentary, which makes the valuable point that this is a civil rights issue and that the arguments being put forth about transgender people sound much like those promoting segregation decades ago. The battle for simple human tolerance and respect, it seems, never ends.

Production companies: Marymoor Productions
Distributor: Passion River Films
Director-screenwriter-editor: Vlada Knowlton
Producers: Lulu Gargiulo, Chadd Knowlton, Vlada Knowlton
Executive producers: Bonnie Hillman, Vlada Knowlton
Director of photography: Lulu Gargiulo

90 minutes