In July 1992, Marsha P. Johnson's body was found floating in the Hudson River. The police called it a suicide. But friends and witnesses provided a different story. Some reported seeing the LGBT rights pioneer being chased by unknown pursuers in the streets of New York City that same night. Did Johnson fall through the boards of the West Village Piers? Was she pushed? Did she jump to escape pursuers with possible Mafia ties? Did she take her own life due to fear or depression?
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, a new documentary by David France (How to Survive a Plague), asks these very questions. The film follows Victoria Cruz — a transgender activist from New York City's Anti-Violence Project — as she investigates what really happened to the late activist. In this journey, Cruz interviews friends, family, and acquaintances of Johnson, who, in addition to providing clues, attest to her role in shaping the modern LGBT rights movement.
The documentary also includes archival footage of Johnson, fellow activist Sylvia Rivera, and the protests they attended. The reels are not always comfortable to watch. In one crushing scene, Rivera is booed at a rally by predominantly white gays and lesbians, a scene that shows the splinters in a movement where trans women of color have not always been welcome.
Johnson, a veteran of the Stonewall riots, was one of the first to fight back against police during the historic LGBT uprising. Along with Rivera, who is prominently featured in Marsha, Johnson founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), an organization that assisted transgender folks, drag queens, gender-nonconforming people, and homeless LGBT youth. (Johnson never identified as a transgender woman in the modern sense, adopting labels like drag queen and "gay transvestite." However, she is considered a mother of the trans movement.) Johnson was also an organizer with ACT UP during the early years of the AIDS crisis in New York. It's quite a legacy — and the film's director, France, learned a lot about Johnson while researching it.
"I knew Marsha from the first days of my living in New York, and I knew her as kind of a fixture along Christopher Street — a kind of saintly presence," France told The Advocate at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere. "But I really didn’t know about her political acumen and her political accomplishments, which are so seminal."
"In the days after the Stonewall riot — and we all know of her central involvement in the Stonewall riot — the days after, there were just a handful of people, maybe a dozen, who got together to form the Gay Liberation Front — the first of the modern gay rights organizations," he continued. "She was one of those people. She built the foundation for the movement. She was the archetype."
In addition to its subject, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is also about the deaths and lives of transgender women today. As of the publication of this article, at least 10 trans women have been killed in the United States in 2017. Johnson's death — the suspicious circumstances, the seeming indifference of law enforcement, the untimely end — opens the door to discussing the systemic and endemic discrimination that leads to the high murder rate within this vulnerable community. To highlight this injustice, the documentary includes coverage of the trial of the killer of Islan Nettles, a transgender woman who was beaten to death in Harlem in 2013.
"[The murder of trans women] has been going on for a long time, but this particular story reminds us how this has been happening — where our transgender women, specifically transgender women of color, are not safe in a lot of spaces," said Sara Ramirez, an executive producer on Marsha and an actress known for her role as Dr. Callie Torres on Grey's Anatomy.
In the current political climate — as the Trump administration rolls back protections for transgender students and "bathroom bills" are passed in state legislatures — it is more essential than ever to hear Johnson's story, and to "center a story around someone who is just trying to be their most authentic true self and had to fight so hard for that," Ramirez added.
The film reminds viewers that Johnson's death robbed the LGBT movement of one of its great leaders. However, as the LGBT community grapples with a political administration that has yet to respond to issues like the murders of trans women, the concentration camps of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya, or the ongoing AIDS epidemic, the documentary offers an opportunity to learn from Johnson as well as her spirit of joy and resistance. If Johnson were alive today, she would be an "example" for us all, Ramirez said.
"She would again be at the forefront, fighting for the community," Ramirez said. "She would be telling stories. She would be empowering our youth. She would be in there doing the work, because that’s what she’s always done."
"Marsha’s political strategy was to model victory. And by doing that, she really gave power for people to believe that there would be some sort of a victory in those initial days of the movement," said France, adding, "Everybody followed her, and I think she would find a way to get us to follow her today."
Even our current administration could learn a few lessons from the late pioneer.
"I would just encourage them to practice more empathy and compassion and self-love, because right now what is being projected is self-hate, actually," Ramirez said. "Please reconsider creating a fear-based society. It’s not gonna help anybody."
Watch a clip from The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson below. And don't miss screenings of the film at upcoming festivals.