Streaming Now: ‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’
The first part of the title “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” refers to the 1992 drowning of pioneering trans activist Marsha “The ‘P’ is for ‘Pay No Mind’” Johnson - a case that was ruled a suicide with no police investigation.
In life, despite being an admittedly awful singer with “makeup that was never put on correctly,” Marsha shone at the center of the LGBT rights movement, beginning with the Stonewall Riots. The documentary follows the contemporary investigation into her death by Victoria Cruz, an Anti-Violence Project counselor who calls Marsha “the Rosa Parks of the LGBT Movement.”
The film’s archival footage takes us back to the late ‘60s and ‘70s, into the heady Chelsea pier-side scene (captured by Peter Hujar’s photography) along “The Stroll” with sex workers in Greenwich Village, and onto the corners where women share lurid innuendos about shady “vans full of guidos” at mob-controlled Christopher Street Festival.
There’s much footage of Marsha’s friend, the unforgettable trans activist Sylvia Rivera, an icon in her own right and stealthily the most intriguing subject in the film. With a steely political will underneath her performatively chipper exterior, Sylvia founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), a groundbreaking organization that took vulnerable people off the streets. In the documentary’s most remarkable scene, Sylvia speaks at a 1973 rally in Washington Square Park and gets booed offstage for uncompromisingly advocating for trans rights.
Sylvia also bears witness to New York’s hyper-capitalistic transformation in the 1990s - she lives in improvised housing on the same piers where Marsha was found dead… until she’s displaced by the City’s redevelopment of the dilapidated Christopher Street piers. In a film that offers few comforts, it’s cheering when Sylvia reappears, sober and employed, in the late ‘90s, showing again her immense resolve and courage to keep Marsha’s spirit alive.
Victoria, a victim of sexual assault herself, is a slow-moving force of nature, possessing a piercing gaze even with one eye blind from glaucoma. Told by the NYPD that there is no case file for Marsha, she pushes forward despite the lack of transparency (and basic human empathy) from the 6th Precinct - and makes great progress on the case.
Director David France draws connections from Marsha’s death to Islan Nettles’s murder in 2016 (she was beaten to death directly outside of a police station in Harlem). The defendant employed the “panic defense,” as if murders are somehow more justified because someone gets unnerved by the mere existence of a trans person.
It remains incredibly dangerous to be a black trans woman in America, with a current life expectancy of just 36 years. Suicide, overdose, murders by pimps, johns or passersby - these were (and sadly still are) the endings for Marsha and many others.