treasure poster


Remembering Shelly “Treasure” Hilliard

Amos Lassen

Shelly “Treasure” Hilliard, a young African American transwoman who died violently in 2011 after Detroit police threatened, coerced, and eventually exposed her as an informant against her drug dealers. In dream hampton’s new documentary, the emphasis is not on Treasure’s death but on Treasure as a member of the trans community and as a daughter and sister in a loving family that totally supported her being who she felt she really was.


We learn the details that led up to her death and we also learn abut the safe places in Detroit where trans justice advocates and outreach workers teach classes and are there and help each other come to terms with her death and its aftermath. Treasure’s murder was indeed a hate crime but it was also a look at the failure of society in terms of racism, transphobia, the exploitation of sex workers, classism, systematic oppression, government indifference, and the continued criminalization of black bodies.

We first meet Treasure via webcam—she made this video for use on a dating site and of course had no idea that is was going to be the way to introduce a film that has become her memorial. We next go to an empty lot in Detroit and then on to meet Lyniece Nelson, Shelley’s mother, who tries to tell is the details of recovering her daughter’s dismembered body but she is soon overcome with emotion.


Treasure’s story brings together two issues that are going to haunt us throughout the new century— the fluidity of identity and the many ways citizens can become the prey of their own government. Detroit has come to stand in for the failure of the American city and is a character in this film, but it is not the antagonist. As hampton tells us who Shelley was, she gives us a look at Detroit’s transgender community. However, we really only hear from her once— instead she lets the members of the community, like Emani Love, speak for themselves and shows us that cis-gendered people do care about those who are trans.

We see Treasure’s family as complex human beings that defy the stereotyping fiction that we so often get of African-Americans. Defying the typical story, Shelley/Treasure had love and support from her mother and sisters after coming out as transgender and because they so loved her makes this even more difficult to watch.


Treasure’s horrific death is as much on the hands of the criminal justice system as it is on the men who butchered her. There are no easy answers as to why it happened to Shelley Hilliard— there is no monstrous individual at work here even if the events are themselves monstrous.

hampton chooses not to end with an image of Hilliard, but of one of her sisters, haunted by the loss, but moving forward in her life. Brandie Brown describes seeing her sibling, Shelly, as a transgender woman. “She had a little black short hairstyle. She was dressed all in black. Nails long. She was looking good,” says Brown, smiling at the memory.

The film is a look at what happened to Hilliard and the overwhelming pain it caused her mother and sisters and it also focuses on the efforts under way locally to help young people like her, who often face prejudice from the outside world, rejection at home and poverty that drives them to prostitution.


There are interviews with other transgender women, who open up about their lives and share examples of the harassment they endure. And there is footage of the haven of Highland Park’s Ruth Ellis Center, which provides safety and support for runaway, homeless, and at-risk lesbian, gay and transgender youth.

For hampton, the movie is a chance to tell Hilliard’s story and explore its broader issues, including the relationship between police and people of color, drug laws that have a Jim Crow-like impact and the criminalization of sex work.