East End Film Festival: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
Directed by David France
Starring Victoria Cruz, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera
Screening in partnership with Stonewall at EEFF on June 18, 2017
A percentage of the screening’s profits will be donated to the charity

by Bernie C Byrnes

Oscar-nominated director David France (How to Survive a Plague) returns with a new documentary about legendary BAME trans icon and gay liberation activist, Marsha P. Johnson. Marsha, who along with Sylvia Rivera spearheaded the Stonewall Riots and formed the world’s first trans-rights organisation, was mysteriously found dead in 1992. Now, 25 years later, an activist named Victoria Cruz has taken it upon herself to re-examine what happened at the end of Marsha’s life.

This fascinating documentary is reminiscent of Paris is Burning. Footage of the Christopher Street area of New York from the 1970s through to the 1990s hauntingly captures the relentless gentrification of today’s Meatpacking District as much as it does the rise of gay rights. Footage of the trans prostitution beat once known as ‘The Stroll’ is barely recognizable as Christopher Street pier. In those days, the West Village piers were a safe haven to a number of homeless trans gender women prior to ‘the sweep’ (not eviction) for the West Side Highway restoration project. There is no question that the area was derelict, but the manner of its refurbishment feels grubby and callous. The glimpses of old New York are inextricably linked to the history of the LGBT rights movement and engender a powerful emotional response.

The protagonist Victoria Cruz, herself a victim of homophobic violence, is a trans rights activist at the point of retirement when she decides to investigate the unsolved death of Marsha P. Johnson. Her investigations bring her butting up against police brutality, missing evidence and dwindling hope of being able to prove that Johnson was murdered rather than ‘committed suicide’ as the police claimed at the time. The treatment of Johnson’s death feels neglectful but is overshadowed by the chilling statistics of the number of trans women being murdered every year by perpetrators who receive short or non-existent sentences. The ruling of ‘suicide’ seems to mask an altogether more sinister attitude that these women, by being trans, are asking to be murdered.

Johnson however, it transpires, was probably not a victim of hate crime. While bigots undeniably murder thousands of other trans women, it was Johnson’s determination to reclaim Pride for the gay community from the mob that is almost certainly what got her killed. It’s almost comforting to note that money here was a bigger motivator than hate.

Perhaps the most shocking element of the documentary is the gay community’s rejection of the trans community in the early days. As founders of Pride and STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), Johnson and Rivera were early trailblazers who continue not to receive the recognition they deserve.

It’s a poignant piece that leaves a bitter aftertaste of injustice. The hardest bit to swallow is that things aren’t getting better quickly enough. The bathroom bills in Texas and North Carolina targeted at trans people, and Trump rescinding guidance from the Obama administration that trans kids should be treated equally shows that we still have a long long way to go yet.

I’m off to have a little cry…


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