The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson Examines the Cold Case of an LGBT Icon
Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, Photo courtesy of: Diana Davies
How do we begin to fill in the holes of our undervalued, under-documented LGBT cultural history? What do we do with the stories that gnaw at us for what they leave unanswered as much as they uplift us for what they declare? How do you tell a story that doesn’t have an ending? With his new movie, David France (How To Survive a Plague) doesn’t merely accept the challenges of conveying incomplete LGBT history, and he doesn’t merely leave an underserved population’s epistemological burdens as subtext. In The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, which had its world premiere Friday at the Tribeca Film Festival, France makes these matters text. He has put together a movie about the lack of answers we have regarding the deaths of trans women (specifically trans women of color like Johnson)—how those plot holes themselves have created a caustic cultural fabric that is its own telling history of the tragic disregard of trans lives.
“They’re yelling out from their graves forjustice,” is how Death and Life’s principal subject, Victoria Cruz of the Anti-Violence Project, describes the piles of cold cases involving trans deaths. Death and Life primarily follows Cruz’s crusade to bring justice to Marsha P.Johnson, a legendary New York activist and entertainer who was at the Stonewall the night its raid gave way to the gay liberation movement—some say Johnson threw the first brick—and who died under mysterious circumstances in 1992; her body was found off the Christopher Street pier in the Hudson River.
Was Marsha murdered? If so, was it by the mob or a carful of “guidos?” Did she jump to her death or fall while being chased? No one knows, and not enough have cared to find out. That the death of a community leader could be met with such systematic apathy is, again, woefully telling. “In any other community, had a similar hero been founded dead under unclear circumstances, it seems self-evident that the city would have put resources, real resources, behind it to try to figure out what happened,” says one of the people attempting to help Cruz in her investigation.
Intercut with Cruz’s various dead-end phone calls to retired cops, various record-keepers, and friends of Johnson are scenes centered on Islan Nettles, a 21-year-old trans woman who was beaten to death in 2013 on a Harlem street. France repeatedly juxtaposes the hunt for Johnson’s justice with that of Nettles. This device to feel blatantly deliberate as the movie trudges almost to the two-hour mark, although there is perhaps no point too fine to put on the value of trans lives, since our culture still doesn’t seem to get it. (In fewer than four months, 2017 has already seen nine murders of transgender women reported.)
France also dips into archival footage, as he did so masterfully with Plague, presenting some moving imagery of Johnson (though not much, presumably because not a lot exists), and turning in a much richer profile of Sylvia Rivera, a friend of Johnson’s and fellow activist. From the operator of an organization that sheltered homeless queer youth in the ‘70s to homeless herself by the ‘90s, from self-identifying as a drag queen/transvestite to declaring herself transgender, the viewer goes on an incredible, often galling journey with Rivera. (A bit of context on the changing identifying terminology would have been a useful inclusion in the film.) In an interview from 1994, Rivera explains, “The street people and the drag queens were the vanguard of the movement—we were the ones who stood at the forefront and fought the cops off, and we were the ones who didn’t mind getting our heads bashed.” She was effectively pushed out of the movement in 1973; in the film, it’s explained that gay men felt drag queens were too negative of a stereotype to represent them anymore—what’s left out is that influential lesbian feminists felt that Rivera and her kind were mocking women in their gender expression.
The lines from the past to the present stay depressingly bold and unbroken. Outside of an under-populated hearing for Nettles’ killer, an activist tells Cruz that he saw gays march in the exact same spot outside the courthouse for marriage equality, but after achieving it, they seem to have no time for trans lives. There is, furthermore, an intellectually bankrupt idea among the more performatively nefarious and opportunistically homocon types who presently command attention in our culture that there’s no reason for trans people and gays to remain grouped together under the LGBT umbrella. This is ignorant and ahistorical. “If it weren’t for drag queens there would be no gay liberation movement,” Rivera says in Death and Life. That’s to say that, without the likes of Rivera, gay men would not be prominent enough in media to have the opportunity to deny people like her.
In many of these cases Rivera tells her own history, because if she didn’t who would? Johnson we hear from less—in fact, we hear most about Johnson through other people. She was“the Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement,” according to Cruz; “Andy Warhol model, prostitute, starving actress, and saint,” per a caption read by her former roommate Andy Wicker; a bodhisattva, according to activist Agosto Machado; and “this elaborate… with feathers and plumes and makeup that was never put on correctly,” in the words of her friend Kitty Rotolo, who’s interviewed from jail. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson has a different purview than a more straightforward bio-doc (like 2012’s Pay It No Mind: Marsha P.Johnson), but its lack of depth on Johnson’s background and life’s work is a little too noticeably undercooked to thematically jibe with the overall necessary air of mystery.
That’s a minor quibble in our information age. Death and Life is many people’s story, but it’s Cruz’s movie. During her search, she emerges a fascinating character in her own right, a vision of patience and perseverance under a puka shell headdress. Like many in the movie, she tells her own history and while some elements of it are “lucky” (her family accepted her as trans as early as the ‘60s), it’s also marked with tragedy. You see how personal this mission of hers is: She shows a picture of a friend that was killed in 1973, explaining, “We never found out who did it or… cold case. They just didn’t care. They were trans, outcasts, society doesn’t want them. I’ve dealt with those feelings in my own personal experiences.”
France follows Cruz’s procedural so deliberately that it feels like you’re being set up for a big reveal. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson leaves questions unanswered, and relaying just what that lack of closure feels like to those who have known a trans person whose death has remained unsolved is precisely the point. The effect as polemic is massive, although from a purely cinematic perspective, the movie ultimately emerges as something of a letdown. Such is life.
But, clearly, as long as the epidemic of trans murders continues, as long as they’re going unsolved or not being prosecuted as hate crimes, the work of this movie remains unfinished. After the screening, France as well as his cast and crew who were in attendance received a standing ovation, and the director revealed that justice for Johnson may yet definitively arrive.
“We did get an unexpected call yesterday from the district attorney’s office, and they are, I think because of some of the interest we got in the newspapers leading up to tonight’s world premiere, I think they thought better of not having resolved that case themselves,” France revealed. “So they’re looking at it again now.” But even if we never learn the exact cause of Johnson’s death, the work of Cruz and France will not have been done in vain, for we now have the illuminating document of incompleteness and frustration that is The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.