TFF2017: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson

"Andy Warhol model, prostitute, starving actress, and saint," reads a poster describing gay rights pioneer and self-described "street queen" Marsha P. Johnson in the apartment of her friend and roommate Andy Wicker in the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. Johnson was both highly celebrated and frequently marginalized, existing as a gay rights pioneer—she and Sylvia Rivera, another transgender woman, were Stonewall rioters and co-heads of S.T.A.R.: Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries—who also happened to be Black and gender nonconforming. (In life, Johnson had no pronoun preference and friends and family refer to her in both masculine and feminine pronouns throughout. For the sake of simplicity I'll use feminine pronouns here.) When she was found floating in the Hudson River in 1992, at age 46, her death was ruled a suicide by the NYPD, who refused to investigate further amid vocal outcry from the gay community. Anti-violence Project activist Victoria Cruz, a contemporary of Johnson's, didn't know her but surely understood her experience as a transgender woman of color and survivor violence herself; perhaps that's why she reopens the case in search of answers in director David France (How to Survive a Plague's) gripping documentary.

Sylvia Rivera with Johnson

Watching Death and Life, I was struck by what an extraordinarily potent blend of elements it contains: gay icon biopic, exploration of gender identity, homicide procedural, transgender rights call-to-arms. That it all works, each of those identities emerging strongly with none favored over the others, is a testament to France's skill as a documentarian and his expert use of modern day footage and interviews and archival material. France finds some incredibly dynamic pieces, from an uncomfortable film of Rivera receiving boos as she excoriates a New York Pride crowd, to a newscast of a homeless Rivera, years later, being evicted from her Hudson River encampment, to grainy but sparkling tapes of Johnson herself holding court. He also captures some powerful scenes of his own, like a gay man lamenting, in the wake of Islan Nettles's murder, that we’ve forgotten the T in LGBT, and Wickers being dumbstruck by a late movie revelation about the possible cause of Johnson’s death. France also selected a terrific protagonist in Cruz, who both drives the investigation forward and possesses an indomitable strength.

Victoria Cruz in The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

Rivera is among those in the film that remind us that transgender folks fought tirelessly in the struggle for gay liberation but have often had their own concerns neglected. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is a powerful testimony that drives a line from the past straight into the present, pleading to give Marsha and her many brothers and sisters the recognition, and protection, that they deserve.