So here's a bit of great news I was not expecting today. According to Variety, Taika Waititi has cast the role of Jaiyah Saelua, the first non-binary player to compete in a men’s FIFA World Cup qualifier, in his upcoming film Next Goal Wins, which will chronicle the Samoan soccer team's reinvention after the longest losing streak in international soccer.
Now, the fact that Waititi and his production are acknowledging Saelua's non-binary identity is in and of itself cause for celebration, since non-binary representation is often erased and next to nonexistent in cinema as a whole, let alone in major films put out by notable directors. But the introduction of a non-binary character in such a high profile production is usually enough to give me, a non-binary person, pause. Will the character's gender be played for comedy? Will studio pressures mandate that the character be played by a known cisgender actor?
Thankfully, it sounds like those ideas never even crossed Waititi's mind. The role has gone to debuting actor Kaimana, a fa'afafine Samoan. Fa'afafines are a third-gender or non-binary gender identity from Samoan culture, assigned male at birth but expressing masculine and feminine traits particular to Polynesia.
This is a HUGE deal for non-binary transgender representation, since there are so few explicitly acknowledged examples of non-binary on-screen representation. We recently had Asia Kate Dillon's role as The Adjudicator in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum to claim as one of the only non-binary characters in a major theatrical release, but as much as I love that character for their mere prominent existence, the film doesn't go out of its way to acknowledge the gender of the character beyond the audience's knowledge of the actor portraying them. The Adjudicator's non-binary identity has been confirmed in interviews, but it still would have been nice to see it made explicit on-screen.
However, the news of Kaimana's casting being announced by Waititi himself, well before the film is finished, seems to indicate that Jaiyah Saelua will have a prominent role in the film that explicitly acknowledges their gender. Not being familiar with Saelua, the Samoan soccer team, fa'afafine culture, or Kaimana themselves, it's hard to say that Next Goal Wins will track with my own experiences as a white non-binary person, but that's also not really the point. We get to see a non-binary person portray a non-binary character, raising awareness of the gender diversity that exists beyond men and women. Even if you're cisgender or binary transgender, that is a cause of excitement.
(Note: Photo by Gage Skidmore, used with permission via Wikimedia Commons)