In early July 1992, the body of Marsha P Johnson – the “saint of Christopher Street”, in this documentary dubbed “the Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement” – was pulled out of the Hudson River. One of the original founders of the Gay Liberation Front, and at the heart of the Stonewall riots, she was beloved by many, and the loss to the community was immense.
Although her death was all-too-quickly labelled a suicide by an uncaring police force, those who knew her never believed she would have taken her own life. David France’s new documentary uses the unanswered questions surrounding it as the hook on which to hang a portrait of a particular time and place, following Victoria Cruz of the NYC Anti Violence Project, as she tries to get the case reopened. In doing so, it examines the involvement and treatment of trans activists in the gay rights movement.
It’s an uneven, scattershot film. While the title promises to look at Marsha’s life, it lingers much more on her death. Her setting up STAR (Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries) with her friend and fellow activist Sylvia Rivera is given fairly short shrift. Rivera’s life is, in fact, more comprehensively examined, presumably because there was more archive footage of her available. And it’s all done against the backdrop of the trial of the man who killed Islan Nettles, a young transgender woman who was beaten to death in 2013.
What threads through each story – including Cruz’s own – is the constant violence and ostracisation faced by transgender women, and the effect that has on their lives. Despite being at the front of the original gay rights marches, Rivera is filmed as she’s booed off the stage by the very people she fought so hard to liberate, pushed aside by a movement that spurned ‘transvestites/drag queens’ (as they referred to themselves at the time) in favour of their cis brothers and sisters. The lack of protesters outside the courthouse where Nettles’ killer faces sentencing is remarked upon – now the privileged have got their gay marriage, one interviewee suggests, transgender people (particularly transgender women) are left behind.
It’s a terrible irony, then, that France – a white, cis, gay man – is now facing accusations of appropriating the work of Reina Gossett, a black transgender woman who spent years researching and digitising previously inaccessible footage of Rivera, Johnson and others. It seems horribly symbolic of the way in which the gay liberation movement took the work of these pioneering women, before casting them aside. France has, here, provided viewers with something of a primer on the contribution made by those forgotten heroes, yet he has left room (albeit unintentionally) for much more to be said on the subject. One hopes their work and life can be examined in much more depth in another film.
The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.