We had finally finished production of our documentary film when we lost contact with one of the main characters. Lavonte Gordon — a Black transgender woman and a former inmate who had been severely beaten in prison — had gone missing.
She wasn’t answering her phone, and we couldn’t get in touch with her family. Her legal team hadn’t heard from her either. We couldn’t start post-production without knowing what had happened to Lavonte. After five months of silence, I bought a plane ticket to Florida and drove to the small town of Bushnell, where Lavonte had been living before we lost contact.
We were welcomed inside her family home and were told disappointing news. Lavonte was back in jail. She had been arrested for several minor charges and was being held on a bond that she could not pay.
This was a huge curveball. Originally, my documentary partner, John Fernandez, and I believed our story, “Chasing Justice,” was about two women who had fought through adversity and were moving on to better lives. The other main character, a white law student named Tiffany Hilton, had survived 10 years of drug addiction and was working with Lavonte on a federal lawsuit against the state over the alleged abuse.
But the reality of Lavonte’s circumstances complicated that cheerful narrative. This was no longer just a story about struggle and revival; it was also about the realities of marginalized people living in the United States. We decided that had to be included in the film.
As journalists and filmmakers, it’s essential to be willing to go where our stories take us. We all enter projects with preconceived notions and personal biases about the story, characters and themes we will present to audiences. But when reality is different or the story changes, we must follow where it leads. Sometimes that requires more work. But above all, we must pursue the truth.
The idea for our documentary came from seeing a social media post by Tiffany, who had been a high school acquaintance. It was March 2021, and the global pandemic had upended our lives. The docuseries I had been working on overseas was canceled. Fernandez’s work had also been severely limited. We were both back in our hometown of Tampa, Florida, when I saw Tiffany’s post. I was shocked. She had been a straight-A student, and now, she was talking about her time in prison.
Over an hour-long phone call, Tiffany told me a harrowing, decade-long story of drug addiction and despair that started when her mother died suddenly during Tiffany’s sophomore year of college. She lost track of friends, developed a rap sheet of arrests and was in and out of jail. But now, Tiffany was in law school, at the top of her class, dedicated to helping others whom society had given up on, just like her.
I originally thought this was the story to tell, but then Tiffany told me about an important case she was working on: Lavonte’s.
Lavonte grew up in state custody after being taken away from her parents at birth. Her childhood had been filled with abuse and neglect, especially after she began to question her gender identity and sexual orientation. Eventually, Lavonte got caught up in the criminal justice system.
In 2017, while Lavonte was incarcerated at Franklin Correctional Institution in Carrabelle, Florida, she was informed that she was being moved from a cell by herself to a cell with another inmate. The other inmate was a known gang member whose affiliation forbade association with LGBTQ prisoners. Despite the other inmate’s threats of violence and Lavonte’s pleas for protection, Lavonte said she was forced into the cell where she was beaten by the other inmate.
That prompted Lavonte to file a federal lawsuit alleging a violation of her civil rights. As a law student, Tiffany took the case under the supervision of a mentor-lawyer. “My goals were to prevent other LGBT community individuals from going through that situation,” Lavonte said. “They shouldn’t have to be tortured because of [corrections officers’] indifference.”
(The Florida Department of Corrections, the prison warden and the Florida Attorney General’s Office, which represented the guards in the case, never returned the documentary filmmakers’ request for comment.)
During production, we followed Tiffany to law school and meetings. We listened in on prison calls between Tiffany and Lavonte as they discussed the latest developments in her case. We combed case documents, state policies on the treatment of trans inmates and the disciplinary records of the officers present during Lavonte’s abuse. We met Tiffany’s friends and family who could tell us about her darkest days and how far she’d come. When Lavonte was eventually released from prison, we began meeting with her in person to learn more about her life, what happened to her behind bars and her future plans.
So when we lost contact with Lavonte, we had to recalibrate. We realized there were important issues in this story that we had not yet explored. Part of the reason why Tiffany was able to persevere through addiction is the legal help, treatment and support she received thanks to the white, middle-class status she was born into. Similarly, Lavonte has continued to flounder, in part, because as a Black trans woman born into state custody, she has always lacked that support.
“I had a lot of help during my struggles, and I know there are many people, especially those from marginalized groups, who don’t have that support,” Tiffany said. “Through my legal work, I want to be an advocate for people who society has left behind or perceives as hopeless.”
As soon as we talked to Lavonte’s family, we reopened production and conducted a series of new interviews with Lavonte from jail. The result is a documentary of struggle, resurgence and continued challenges. It’s a story that’s much more compelling and real than the one we had originally set out to tell.
The process of making “Chasing Justice” reinforced our conviction that as storytellers we must continue to reassess the story as we gather more information. We must temper the urge to finish and move on. Failing to pursue the full truth makes us fiction writers, not documentarians.
“Chasing Justice” won an audience choice award at the 2023 Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa, Florida.