"If you were in New York -- in gay New York, in queer New York -- during her lifetime, you knew Marsha," documentarian David France says of his latest film's subject, Marsha P. Johnson. "She would call out your name or she would call out, "Hi, doll" and she was dispensing this kind of joy. Her joy was her form of resistance…When '69 happened and the mindset changed within the community and there was an agreement across the board to advocate for liberty, for freedom, nobody really knew what that looked like and Marsha modeled it. She just put it on. She said, 'This is what it's going to be like.' She threw off all convention and she said, 'Freedom is going to be truly free.'"
Marsha "Pay 'Em No Mind" Johnson has been called "the Rosa Parks of the LGBTQ movement," because of the pivotal role she played in the Stonewall riots of 1969. (Some say that Johnson threw the first brick.) She was a pioneer of the gay liberation movement, co-founder of S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries), a self-proclaimed drag queen, community leader and, according to her friend and roommate, Randy Wicker, an "Andy Warhol model, prostitute, starving actress and saint."
In July 1992, Johnson was found floating in the Hudson River off the Christopher Street pier and, despite outcry from her community, her death was ruled a suicide by the NYPD. In The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, streaming now on Netflix, France reopens Johnson’s case. He is, it must be acknowledged, a cisgender white man telling the story of a transgender woman of color, but hers is a story the filmmaker has spent decades needing to tell.
"I was at The Village Voice in 1992, as an investigative reporter, when Marsha died,” he revealed during a recent post-screening Q&A. “I was asked to investigate her death, although I never did finish my work and write the piece."
His primary beat at the time, France explained, was the HIV-AIDS epidemic, which would inspire his first documentary, 2012’s Oscar-nominated, How to Survive a Plague. “It was a turning point in the epidemic in 1992 and that work overtook me, both as a journalist and personally -- my lover was dying that year,” he recalled of why he never finished his piece. “No one went and did that story. The Village Voice didn't return to that story. We never saw anybody do the investigation. So, I always felt a personal responsibility to come back to it, and I felt that I had failed Marsha in some way that I wanted to rectify."
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson dutifully exhumes Johnson's cold case to finally give her death its due, though perhaps to a fault. Framed as a "whodunit" with Anti-Violence Project advocate Victoria Cruz conducting the investigation, the doc leans a bit too heavily on the true crime trappings of it all, as projects in 2017 are wont to do, with Cruz filling the Sarah Koenig role and more than enough ominous, tinkering music played over glossy shots of case files. Who really killed Marsha P. Johnson?, we’re made to question. The Mafia? Dirty cops?
Cruz's procedural is not what resonated most deeply with me, in the end. Yes, Johnson deserves justice and I hope, someday, she gets it. (Cruz has passed along her findings to the FBI, however, France notes, "There was an election thing that happened and a firing thing that happened.") Ultimately, though, that is only one part of a film that is also part scrapbook, part memorial, part history lesson. As queer people, we are rarely, if ever, taught our history in schools, particularly trans people and trans women of color, who are overwhelmingly removed from the narrative. LGBTQ history is something that must be sought out, and though The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is not the first doc with Johnson as its subject, by virtue of the fact that it lives on the Netflix platform, it is now the most accessible. With its treasure trove of previously unseen archival footage, the film allows a new generation the opportunity to know not only Johnson, but the equally revolutionary Sylvia Rivera, who fought for trans rights until her death from liver cancer in 2002 and, as France stated, "brought anger and rage to pair with Marsha's joy."
More urgently, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is a bracing reminder of the multitude of ways in which we, as a minority community and society at large, have failed our trans brothers and sisters, a message as relevant today as it was when Johnson lived. Trans people live under attack in the U.S., both physically -- the film documents the court case over the murder of Islan Nettles, a trans woman of color who was beaten to death in 2013, while a record 21 trans people have been killed this year alone, as of September, of which 19 were trans people of color -- and politically. (The U.S. attorney general recently revised a federal policy that protected transgender workers from discrimination, mere months after the president tweeted out his plans to ban trans soldiers from serving in the military.) That these staggering statistics are getting worse and the trans community is frequently made to feel like they are fighting the epidemic alone is why France, at one point, titled the film We All Killed Marsha P. Johnson.
"For Victoria, [this] was really a Hail Mary. She had done this work and what she helped us see and understand was that there may indeed have been one or two people who were directly responsible for Marsha's death, but the culpability was much deeper and broader than that," France concluded. "Her indictment is really an across the board indictment of our culture and our humanity and even the LGB community itself. That's the message that she took to heart...For her, the conclusion was that we must rededicate ourselves to this revolutionary goal that Sylvia and Marsha set out for us in 1969."