The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is an engrossing watch that works on different levels and through different modes. At the outset, it seems like the documentary will take the form of an obsessive detective story/murder mystery. Victoria Cruz, who works for the Anti-Violence Project, picks up a cold case about the mysterious death of Marsha P. Johnson, a fixture of the West Village’s gay and trans scene. Marsha died in 1992 under mysterious circumstances. The NYPD ruled it was a suicide. Cruz digs deep into records and finds that there may be something else going on that the police might have brushed off or perhaps even covered up.
That itself would be so involving given how driven Cruz is in her quest to find justice for Marsha, but that’s not all this documentary is. While the death and life of Marsha P. Johnson is a starting point for the movie, the documentary is more like a brief history of trans rights, though predominantly in New York City. The film’s not just about Marsha. Director David France (How to Survive a Plague) builds his compelling film about LGBT rights history around the lives of three trans women: Marsha P. Johnson, Victoria Cruz, and Sylvia Rivera.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
Director: David France
Release Date: TBD
Gay rights have come a long way in 50 years, but trans rights have lagged behind. The film looks back to the Stonewall riots to offer context for the LGBT struggle while also considering how members of the trans community felt excluded from the mainstream part of the struggle. Speaking at a gay rights rally in Washington Square Park during the 1970s, Sylvia Rivera is booed while she delivers an impassioned and derisive rant. She felt excluded from the movement; she had to fight just to get on stage to voice her exclusion. So much about The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is about supporting communities, building communities, and looking out for the marginalized among us. The rejection Rivera faced is just one of many hardships the film deals with in frank terms, and the solution tends to be about forming groups of support that resemble different kinds of families.
As the documentary weaves the present with the past to flesh out Marsha, Sylvia, Victoria, and the LGBT culture of New York, the film also considered the future of trans rights via the murder of Islan Nettles. Nettles was a trans woman beaten to death in Harlem in 2013. James Dixon, the man who killed her, became enraged when he learned he had been flirting with a trans woman. While so much of the film is about history and seeking resolution for a 20 year old case, the Dixon trial is a reminder that the struggle for justice and trans rights is far from over. People say that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but it’s so gradual most times, and it’s never a guarantee of justice in all cases; people tell themselves a lot of things when trying to make sense of an unjust, amoral universe.
I wonder if there’s another title for the documentary that can more accurately encapsulate its scope and its focus. It seems like a quibble. The scope of what France is doing here–braiding different stories about different women together through NYC history–is built around the death and life of Marsha P. Johnson while going far beyond that. This is a film about the value and worth of all trans lives, and why the fight must go on together.