Review: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, a documentary directed by David France, looks back at the death of one of the icons of the gay rights movement.

A trans activist named Victoria Cruz, who worked for New York City’s Anti-Violence Project, decided to make her last project before retiring an attempt to bring justice to Marsha P. Johnson. Victoria Cruz says of many murdered transgender people, “They’re yelling out from their graves for justice.” Her rallying cry became, “Justice for Marsha.”

When Johnson was found in the Hudson River near the Christopher Street pier in 1992 the police dismissed it as suicide and it was never investigated. Many people suspected it was a murder. In The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson we watch as Victoria Cruz tries to reopen the cold case.

Archival footage and interviews with people who were friends of Marsha’s tell the story of the “queen” of the gay community in New York City. Her friend and co-activist Sylvia Rivera tells much of the story of that time. Randy Wicker was a leader then and shared an apartment with Marsha. He talked about Marsha and possible scenarios for her death.

Victoria Cruz in The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
Victoria Cruz worked tirelessly to find answers

At every turn in her investigation, Victoria Cruz was met with opposition and deflection. Everyone from cops from that time to records clerks stymied her efforts to get information. She was relentless in her search for the truth.

Choosing to put “death and life” in that order in the title of this film tells you what the focus is. We learn much more about the possible circumstances of Marsha death than we do about her life. Victoria Cruz, a fascinating transgender woman in her own right, is unexplored. Marsha’s transgender friend Sylvia Rivera tells more about her life and struggles than we learn about Marsha.

In the early days, beginning with Stonewall, trans people (they used the term transvestites in those days) were considered in drag rather than transgender. They were unwelcome in the LGBT community. Then, as now, many were killed simply for being who they were. Oddly, there was no discussion of race and the killing of African American transgender women in numbers far above that of other races.

We’ve come a long way since the 1960s, since Stonewall, but there is a long way to go. The film makes that point by including a murder trial about a transgender woman beaten to death in 2013 as a subplot during Victoria’s investigations.

It took enormous courage for people like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera to simply be who they were. They were brave, defiant, and brash. They were larger than life because they had to be to exist in those times.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson had more producers than I’ve ever seen listed for a film, most notable among them was Sara Ramirez. The film is currently streaming on Netflix.

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