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“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

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