Entertainment » Movies

The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson

by Roger Walker-Dack
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Oct 6, 2017
'The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson'
'The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson'  

The writer/director David France has followed his first excellent feature documentary, the Oscar-nominated "How To Survive a Plague," with another look back at an often forgotten part of LGBT history. His new film, "The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson," is the story of a veteran drag queen and gay liberation activist who was mysteriously found dead not long after she took part in the Stonewall riots, and whose death was written off by a disinterested police force as suicide.

Now, some 25 years later, Victoria Cruz -- a transgender activist who is about to retire from New York's LGBT Anti-Violence Project -- has chosen to investigate the case herself, hoping to finally be able to get some closure on the incident for the family and community. Cruz has her own history of being assaulted, and this helps propel her dogged research, despite being unable to get any cooperation from now-retired police officers who resent her digging up matters from the past they would rather forget.

She has much better luck with the few friends of Johnson who are still alive, but at best their memories are now sketchy -- although each and every one of them are convinced that Johnson had most definitely not taken her own life.

France combines this with some excellent archival footage that paints a vivid picture of the flamboyant Johnson, who was a much-loved figure on the streets around Greenwich Village. Funny and fearless, this self-styled "street queen" had herself been was interviewed, talking about being part of the crowd on the night that the Mafia-owned Stonewall Bar was raided and, for once, the drag queens and transvestites fought back. However, even though they played such an integral part of this important kick-start to the gay liberation movement, they still felt marginalized by most of the gay community.

When Johnson met the younger Sylvia Rivera (a fellow activist), they started S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries), which was essentially a housing program for other young women of color. Rivera was the most voluble in protesting against the authorities after Johnson's death was swept under the carpet. Right until her own death ten years later, the very politicized Rivera never eased up on trying to improve the situation for drag queens and trans women, as well as inclusion in the LGBT community, even though she faced a great deal of resentment and resistance, from gay men in particular.

As Cruz slowly pieces together witnesses statement to get a fuller picture of the case, she is also following the current trial in the homicide of Islan Nettles, the last in a long seemingly unending list of young trans women who has been murdered. Her killer, James Dixon, claimed he committed the act in a "blind fury" after he discovered Nettles was trans; he was only sentenced to 12 years in jail. What follows is an interesting conversation between Cruz and one of her colleagues at the Anti- Violence Project, bemoaning such a lack of their resources that they cannot deal with all the new cases, let alone looking back into the past. Cruz agrees, but is firm: "They're yelling out from their graves for justice," she says, and continues to work diligently to collate enough evidence to warrant an official re-investigation.

This documentary will not only quite rightly help ensure that the legacies of Johnson and Rivera are not forgotten, including the crucial part they played in establishing the early rights of trans people. Paralleling Johnson's case with Islan Nettle's murder sharply reminds us that, on many levels, the safety of trans women has hardly improved at all.

Also, very sadly, the documentary serves as an uncomfortable reminder that the LGBT community is still too factionalized, and that inclusion of transgender (the T part of LGBT) still has a long way to go.

As for closure for Marsha Johnson, the final scenes in the film are of Cruz handing in a big folder with all her research to the FBI. Maybe what happens next will be France's next film; either way, this one, like "How To Survive a Plague," should be compulsory for all our community, no matter which letter of LGBT you are.

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.


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