Since the beginning of 2017, seven transgender women of color have been murdered in the United States. In the past ten years, over 400 trans women have been killed, and most of their cases continue to remain unsolved. Despite the strides the LGBTQ community has made over the past several decades, the trans community is continually ostracized, cast aside and violently attacked. Most recently, Donald Trump rolled back bathroom protections for transgender teens that were put in place by the Obama administration.
In his devastating but stellar documentary, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” filmmaker David France explores the life of the vibrant and vivacious Stonewall icon and pillar of the LGBTQ rights movement, and transgender community.
On July 6, 1992, at the age of 46, Marsha P. Johnson was found dead floating in the Hudson River off the edge of the Christopher Street Piers. Though her death was ruled a suicide at the time, many of her friends vehemently dismissed that claim. Until now, the circumstances surrounding Marsha’s death have never been thoroughly explored.
As “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” opens, we meet Anti-Violence Project activist Victoria Cruz, an older woman who dons a wreath of cowry shells across her temple. Cruz is looking forward to her retirement. However, before she can rest, she decides to embark on a journey to try and uncover exactly what happened to Marsha; a woman who mothered so many on the streets of Greenwich Village during the heart of the revolution and gave her life for the cause. Donning vibrant orange sneakers and carrying a walking stick, Cruz rifles through old videos, photographs, and police reports, making countless phone calls while contending with whispers of mafia involvement and detectives that are just as dismissive today as they were twenty-five years ago. She travels through New York and New Jersey talking to the people who knew and loved Marsha most. For Cruz, this journey is not just about Marsha whose middle initial stood for, “Pay no mind.” For her, it’s also about the friends that she’s lost and the other trans women whose lives have been snuffed out as a result of our violent and inhumane society. As Cruz says. “They’re yelling out from their graves for justice.”
Called The Rosa Parks of the LGBTQ movement, Marsha’s death is still a raw and devastating wound. We meet her family, her whimsical roommate Randy Wicker whom she shared a home with for twelve years, and the late trans activist Sylvia Rivera, who formed STAR (Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries) with Marsha in the early ‘70s. As Cruz gets her subjects to open up, sharing their stories and memories of Marsha, the pain of her death leaps from them and splatters across the screen. Often the film is just overwhelmingly heartbreaking.
As she retraces Marsha’s final movements on the last night of her life, Cruz must also contend with the present. She sits in the 2016 court proceedings of killer James Dixon who was only sentenced to 12 years in jail after he murdered 19-year old Islan Nettles in Harlem. His defense was that he “panicked” when he discovered that she was trans. What’s so alarming about Nettles’ case juxtaposed against Marsha’s, is that not much has changed. The trans community is still the most marginalized under the rainbow umbrella. Gay marriage, though significant, has been the band-aid of the movement, sweeping other issues under the rug.
Though Marsha P. Johnson’s life and death could have held the film up firmly on its own, director France brilliantly gives the film more depth and dimension by weaving in the life of Marsha’s dear friend Sylvia Rivera. A polarizing force in the movement, we watch footage of Sylvia in 1973 getting booed and shunned off the stage by her queer identifying peers. France makes it clear that the gay community has done their part in rejecting transgender people. After that incident, Sylvia left New York City and the movement behind for many years. Speaking into the camera two years after Marsha’s death, she bitterly recounts never forgiving the movement that she helped start, for turning its back on her. Shortly after Marsha’s death, Sylvia was homeless, living on the dilapidated pier where Marsha’s body was found. Distraught, she says to no one in particular, “Well Marsha, at least we tried, that’s all I can say.”
Meanwhile, as she uncovers the beauty and richness of Marsha’s life, Cruz opens up about her own turbulent life, including a horrendous attack that she endured at a former place of employment. Like Marsha, Sylvia and so many other trans people living across the globe, Cruz’s life has not been an easy one. All of these stories, individually and intertwined, within a society that continues to inflict brutality and cruelty upon the trans community, are what makes France’s film so deeply stirring and devastating. As the film comes to a close, a weary Victoria Cruz looks into the distance as she quietly tells herself, “Come on girl, chin up.”
“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival Friday, April 21, 2017.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami