Music Box Theatre cancels screening of film called ‘transphobic’


The Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., is know for its lineup of arthouse, midnight movies and repertory oddities.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The Music Box Theatre has quietly pulled a screening of a controversial indie film following tweets that accused the film of “transphobia” and “fascism.”

The Lakeview theater, well-known for hosting arthouse, midnight movies and repertory oddities, had scheduled a special showing of “Actors” on Feb. 2, accompanied in-person by its two New York-based stars and creators: real-life siblings Betsey Brown and Peter Vack. Self-described as a “hybrid docu-fiction satire,” it features Vack as a twisted meta version of himself, an actor and indie filmmaker who decides to re-identify as a woman to gain attention in the art and entertainment world.

But on the night of Jan. 12, independent filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun tweeted that hosting the film was a “bad look” for the Music Box.

“This movie is transphobic and reeks of violence. I pulled my film from fests that were playing it,” said Schoenbrun, who is transgender and goes by they/them pronouns. Within 24 hours, “Actors” disappeared from the Music Box’s website without a peep, and the schedule for Feb. 2 is currently blank.

The Music Box has offered no explanation — multiple attempts to reach various theater management over email and phone went unanswered — so it’s unknown whether Schoenbrun’s tweet directly prompted the show cancellation, but actress/podcaster Dasha Nekrasova believes so.

“Ridiculous and disappointing that @musicboxtheatre would pull their screening of “Actors” citing baseless accusations of ‘transphobia’ and ‘fascism’ — shameful lack of integrity and respect for filmmakers,” tweeted Nekrasova, who appears in the HBO drama “Succession” and was also cast in Brown and Vack’s upcoming sci-fi drama “”

Before they shot a single second of their film, the brother-sister team appeared ready to deflect such criticisms. They crowdfunded the film via $40,000 raised on Kickstarter, with a project description that reads: “This is NOT a film about the trans experience. This is about white cis male fragility and the lengths some will go to keep their seat at the table.”

That’s not the way Schoenbrun sees it. The director of the 2021 coming-of-age/horror drama “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” told the Sun-Times that institutions like the Music Box shouldn’t be platforming a work that “I and many in the trans film community believe to be a clear transphobic dog whistle.” They declined to explain the accusation further, citing “virulent and scary harassment” following Nekrasova’s Jan. 13 tweet calling Schoenbrun “a psycho.”​​

Peter Vack (left) and sister Betsey Brown star in “Actors.”


In his negative review of “Actors,” New York City blogger Mike Crumplar panned it as “a minstrel show caricature” of trans people. The film is “basically ‘Tootsie’ — if ‘Tootsie’ was about how the most mentally ill and shameful thing for a cis person to do is to think it’s better to be a trans person,” he wrote.

Cancellations of movie screenings due to controversial content are rare in Chicago.

In August 1988, approximately 675 people loudly picketed screenings of Martin Scorsese’s ’’The Last Temptation of Christ’’ in front of the iconic Biograph Theater — contending that the movie’s portrayal of Jesus was blasphemous. Still, the theater carried on with the showings.

More recently, Brenden Frasier’s comeback film “The Whale” has been labeled by activists as “fat-phobic.” After a recent fight over the documentary “Jihad Rehab” at Sundance, Variety suggested that film festivals and the indie film world were becoming timid because they’re “desperate to avoid controversy and the wrath of any identity-focused Twitter mob.”

Rebecca Fons, director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, declined to address the Music Box’s decision to nix “Actors” but noted that “there is no hard and fast rule about the decision to cancel a presentation.

“Defining art as ‘controversial’ can even be controversial,” Fons said. “The process of cancellation, in my experience, is taken with great care and involves artists, audiences, and administrators. Regardless of the situation or the outcome, the process begins with listening and learning.”

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