The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson ****
Director: David France
In 1969, a prominent New York trans figure arrived in the small hours of the morning outside the Stonewall Tavern soon after the beginning of a riot. Over the coming days, she would be one of the community’s figureheads as LGBT People fought back against discrimination from the police, government and community at large. Today, she is remembered as one of the pioneers of the Gay Liberation Movement, but in the years that followed Stonewall, her continuing struggle and eventual tragic death would go almost unnoticed by the public and unrecognised by the media. So what went wrong? In this documentary from David France, Oscar-nominated director of the seminal LGBT documentary How To Survive A Plague, The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson seeks to uncover the truth about a figure only now being recognised for her contribution to LGBT equality
The film follows trans activist Victoria Cruz, who nowadays works to help the victims of violence toward trans people. As she struggles against the ongoing discrimination the trans community continues to face, she also looks back on the life and death of her friend, Marsha P. Johnson. She says that in order to obtain justice for people today, she must also pursue justice for figures from the past. And Marsha’s story is one still to be resolved.
In 1992, Marsha’s body was pulled from the Hudson River six days after going missing. Officially ruled a suicide, Marsha’s friends and community have since questioned this ruling, stating that there was no indication whatsoever beforehand that Marsha was in the frame of mind to kill herself. With Greenwich Village still very much under mob control, rumours abound that she was involved in a dispute that would eventually lead to her death. But while this documentary does seek to uncover the truth, really what it aims to highlight is the way that the police did not and would not follow lines of enquiry that could have brought her killers to justice. Instead, a comfortable ruling of suicide was much easier than investigating the death of someone they didn’t deem worthy of protection.
This is the hard line this documentary follows. Victoria is seeking more than just justice for Marsha, instead demanding justice for her whole community. The documentary goes far beyond the scope of just an investigative piece about an unsolved crime and this broad scope is maybe its only real flaw. As a film that declares itself to be about Marsha in the title, in reality it is Marsha’s story that is the most undeveloped in the film. Cruz’s present day battle with transphobia plays alongside Marsha’s, while the story of Sylvia Rivero also takes centre stage, who was another trans activist who fought alongside Marsha before and after her death. With all three stories battling from screen-time, this could easily have made (and should have made) a full documentary series.
Finding its release on Netflix this month, the film benefits from following a pair of genuinely interesting subjects. Marsha and Sylvia were both true heroines of LGBT Liberation and this is depicted clearly through composition of archive footage and interviews with both themselves and those who were close to them. Unfortunately, Victoria is less of an engaging figure and her withdrawn nature means that the present day storyline makes for the least compelling viewing, which is a shame because it is the part of the film that we are intended to pay the most attention to. However, the depiction of current cases of transphobia do speak for themselves, meaning that she only serves to act as a catalyst to hammer home the point the film aims to make.
And the point is well and truly hammered home. Marsha was undoubtedly the victim of discrimination in the failing to investigate her murder. Sylvia had to struggle against oppression her entire life, despite providing assistance for hundreds in a similar situation to her. Victoria is dealing with cases of violence against trans people today on a daily basis. This is a very effective piece about transphobia that adeptly weaves the story of a truly legendary icon with the problems still facing her community today.
OUT NOW ON NETFLIX.
EDIT: Since writing this review, allegations have emerged surrounding the origins of the footage used in the film. Info on these allegations can be found here. The Pink Lens has reviewed this film as seen, so our comments stand toward the documentary as a work in itself, regardless of the allegations or their outcome.