THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MARSHA P. JOHNSON
DAVID FRANCE, NETFLIX, 2017
“I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation and you all treat me this way? What the fuck’s wrong with you all?”
Sylvia Rivera’s words—shouted from the stage of a 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day rally—are a damning and still-relevant condemnation of an increasingly depoliticized and homonormative queer rights movement. In The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, the failures of that movement are cast in stark relief from Rivera, who, much like Grace Coddington opposite Anna Wintour in The September Issue, is positioned as a tender, nuanced individual who thanklessly sacrificed much of herself for an unappreciative cause.
The film follows Victoria Cruz, an activist working with the New York City Anti-violence Project, as she exhumes the case of the unexplained death of Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson, one that was ruled a suicide but widely thought to be a murder. Johnson is more symbol than subject
in the film, fondly remembered through the memories of her friends and family but regrettably not heard from, as archival footage is scarce, limited to the occasional sassy quip.
That said, it’s crucial to not reduce Johnson to a snappy joke. Johnson’s activism was direct and tangible—she gave away the clothes on her back, galvanized a disenfranchised community through STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and created a space on East 12th Street that did the often underrated work of clothing, housing and feeding trans people.
An ongoing issue in Marsha P. Johnson is that for the supposed emphasis on Johnson’s life, less than half of the movie is dedicated to it. Cruz’s investigation is well intended and fulfills its duty to Johnson’s memory, but ultimately leads nowhere, not to a resolution or even a moral. As a result, regurgitating the details surrounding her death emphasizes trauma rather than resolves it, underlining the ongoing state of emergency for trans and gender nonconforming people.
But France’s film accomplishes its mission, drawing an important comparison to contemporary cases of violence against trans women of colour. For every charge that Pride fails to represent a certain group, Marsha P. Johnson reiterates the fact that trans women put everyone else before themselves. It’s high time we returned the favour. —VIDAL WU
Diana Davies Sylvia Ray Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson at City Hall rally for gay rights, April 1973