The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson

“What happens when a flower gets wilted, does it just die away and is [it] forgotten? // Well hopefully that flower will shed some seeds that will grow into movement

Marsha P Johnson was a black trans woman (self-identifying as a drag queen, the language which existed at the time) who was, at the very least, militantly active in the 1969 Stonewall Riots. There are conflicting accounts about whether she “threw the first brick”, but thanks to Stonewall, and countless other protests over her lifetime, she is one of the reasons we have Pride. Every queer person should know who she is. She is gay liberation. She was The Moment. Thankfully, this documentary paints a vivid picture.

Britney Line Time:I just wanna be happy, in a place where love is free… And when you mention my name, make sure you know the truth

The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson (David France, 2017) follows a 25-year-long community-led investigation into Marsha’s suspicious death in 1992. Though police were quick to rule it a suicide, we discover the more complex details alongside Victoria Cruz, a friend of Marsha and activist for the Anti-Violence Project (AVP). In the documentary, Victoria she works her way through police reports, documents and witnesses.

Thus, it makes sense that the documentary is also a spotlight into the history of queer resistance in the US. Using a (potential) murder of a black trans woman as a catalyst for this education paints a tragically poetic story. This reminds the viewer of the sadly essential link between mourning and activism in the queer community. Through the work of AVP, we also follow protests for justice for another murdered black trans woman, Islan Nettles, as her killer is put on trial. In 2016. This parallel is a sobering reminder to keep fighting because this shit still happens. Just last week two black trans women were killed within 24 hours in the US. The fight is far from over.

The film is framed by interviews with (surviving) witnesses, some of the last people that saw Marsha. In between, we flash back to her activism from Stonewall to her death. (Sidenote: at one of these protests, activists are giving out leaflets entitled ‘Straights read this’, a slogan I might repurpose for the blog…) We meet Marsha’s family, her roommate, her friends: mostly trans women, with some lesbians and gay men too. You can feel a real sense of community and sisterhood through the screen, tragically but necessarily reflected in a collective mourning. We visit bars, houses, her old apartment ー which still holds a shrine to her, 25 years later. 

Top Tip: bring the tissues. Let’s just say I cried at the trailer.

This is probably a good time to bring up sources. You may have heard about this film through the controversy surrounding Tourmaline (previously known as Reina Gosset) and her claims that David France stole a lot of her ideas from sources she posted on vimeo. While Tourmaline did not own the copyright to these sources, a lot of the work she did to collate them was left uncredited. As pointed out on an episode of Queer As Fact (thank you to Grey Fraser for directing me to this discussion), white cis men like France are often applauded for telling the stories of marginalised people. Conversely, filmmakers like Tourmaline (you guessed it, a black trans woman) still face a plethora of barriers when trying to tell these same stories: lack of funding and resources, and indeed having their ideas stolen.

As you’ll notice, I’ve made attempts to put the trans women, lesbians and gays on screen at the center of this review. Equally, Victoria Cruz’s research seems to be unique to this documentary, and it worth highlighting.

Tourmaline has made a (somewhat fictionalised) account of the night of the Stonewall Riots in a short film called ‘Happy Birthday Marsha!’, which is available to watch on Amazon Prime. [Don’t worry, I can write those two words here without bursting into flames.]

Right, let’s get back into it. Over to our storytellers.

The first witness that stood out to me ー literally, she’s 6 foot 8 ー is a trans woman referred to as ‘Miss Kitty’. Towering over the ‘petite’ Victoria, she commands our attention in her high ponytail, bold make-up and prison uniform. (This interview was held at one of the more ‘out there’ locations.) Even if it had to be in a prison canteen, my immediate thought was ‘I definitely want to have lunch with her.’

Biggest Gay Mood: bleaching your hair and wearing a three-colour eye look in prison

The incomparable Miss Kitty. Image via Netflix (screenshot)

Miss Kitty’s voice, like many of the interviewees, is a soft, buttery New York drawl that can’t help but remind me of the queens of the ball scene that we meet in Paris is Burning. No clearer was this comparison than when she unflinchingly delivered a savage but endearing read, saying that her friend Marsha wore “feathers and plumes and make-up that was never put on correctly”. [If you’ve seen it you’ll read that in her voice.] See also: Sylvia Rivera referring to the Stonewall Inn as a “very nice campy little bar”. More on that iconic queen later.

Holding hands while they reminisce about Marsha, the interaction between Kitty and Victoria also brought us the opening quote of the review. To quote Bianca del Taco Trio, it bears repeating:

Kitty: “What happens when a flower gets wilted, does it just die away and is [it] forgotten?”

Victoria: “Well hopefully that flower will shed some seeds that will grow into movement

On top of this, Miss Kitty introduces us to the theory that Marsha, a sex worker, may have met her end after getting into a car with a risky-looking client. As Kitty recounts this in her prison uniform, we are confronted with the dangers of forcing sex work underground through criminalisation. Indeed, we are reminded of the high numbers of trans women working in the sex trade, often through circumstance and lack of other viable options. Considering how many people still refuse to acknowledge that rights for sex workers is inherently a queer issue, I would have liked this storyline to have been further explored. But there is a lot to uncover, and, after a brief sojourn with survivor and tired-of-your-bullshit Chelsea (complete with iconically uneven eyeliner eyebrows), we move on.

One more nuanced and understated interaction also stood out to me: between Victoria and Director of AVP, Beverly Tillery. As Victoria explains her findings, Beverly questions: with so many more recent cases unsolved and under-investigated by police, why allocate limited resources towards a now ancient possible homicide? Wouldn’t the time and energy be better spent fighting for victims who are more likely to see justice? Victoria argues that Marsha’s case being solved would be important for queer history and thus inspiring for queer people today. Obviously the ideal would be to have ample resources for both…

Top Tip #2: you can make this happen by donating to AVP

…but unfortunately this is a debate that has to be had: about the value of community history. Once again, this discussion felt a little cut short.

Next, as correctly suggested by her inclusion in the documentary, it would be impossible to discuss Marsha P Johnson and the foundation of the gay rights movement without mentioning Sylvia Rivera.

Another trailblazer for the gay rights movement, Sylvia was treated with a lot less gratitude by her community. Many parts of her story shown in the documentary are hard to watch. Though eventually renowned as “mother of all gay people” at the World Pride march in Rome in 2000, one particularly heartwrenching clip shows her booed by white middle class gays during a Pride speech in 1973, just four years after Stonewall. It is worth noting here that Tourmaline claims credit for recovering this footage after it was purposefully taken down, reposting it in an act of self-proclaimed ‘direct action’. Sylvia, as an outspoken activist for the most marginalised people in the gay community ー all combinations of working class, homeless, trans, sex workers, black, brown and latinx ー was annexed by the community for whose rights she fought relentlessly. To see her chastised by a Pride crowd whilst shouting “gay power” is both confusing and heartbreaking.

By 1996, Sylvia starts to reclaim her place in history with support from an organisation she set up, STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), whose safehouse maintains the pure warmth and joy of their other founder, Marsha, four years after her death.

Sylvia’s treatment and eventual death highlights the more subtle effects of systemic racism, homophobia and transphobia. Rejected by her community, she became homeless and fell into addiction. Ironically, her recovery and renewed status and activism were cut short by her death by liver cancer in 2002, surely an after-effect of the drug and alcohol abuse during homelessness.

Soundtrack Stand Out: For Marsha P Johnson, Bryce Dessner

We also see the effects of this systemic prejudice in the police and their continuing ignorance and outright mismanagement of Marsha’s case. Police members consistently patronise Victoria, telling her not to poke her nose into the investigation. With the help of a gay intern (they’re everywhere!), she discovers numerous unfollowed leads, lost files and unwilling (ex-)officers as she struggles to gather necessary paperwork like phone conversations and autopsy reports.

These four facets ー sex work, allocation of resources and legal aid, Sylvia Rivera’s role, and police incompentence ー are only some of the angles explored in this complex documentary, and each one of them could constitute their own film, or at least an episode in a series. Aside from the aforementioned source controversy, the main potential complaint I could make about The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson (and, I hasten to add, The Legacy) is that a lot of stones remain only partially turned over. We get only a peek into many themes and theories.

Then again, is the purpose of a documentary not to make you want to do more research? (Though let’s not take that research from a trans woman and leave her uncredited, shall we). There’s only so much you can fit into an hour and forty-eight minutes, and it seems unlikely that anyone could come away from watching this without the need to, at the very least, read a few Wikipedia pages. Its staying power is obvious, from as much of an emotional impact as a critical one. It hit me, then gave me a ‘where next?’. Sure, I was frustrated, but isn’t that the point?

Click stars to view criteria.

These stars reflect the work of everyone that contributed to the making of the film, not just David France.

Header image via The Guardian

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