Marsha P Johnson was an iconic trans activist from the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969. She was a pioneer, a fierce campaigner, but also a loving mother figure.
If any of this is news to you, this documentary is essential viewing.
Directed by David France, the film starts out with a memorial parade for Johnson after her untimely and suspicious death in 1992.
On 6 July, Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River off the Christopher Street pier.
France said: ‘We found old evidence, old witnesses, new evidence, new witnesses, and significant archival footage, all to examine the question of what might have happened to Marsha at the end of her life.
‘And that answer is in the film,’ he added.
The film also highlights the life of Sylvia Rivera, a close friend of Johnson’s and a fellow trans activist during the early LGBTI liberation movement.
It’s all tied together through a new investigation from Victoria Cruz, a transgender woman from the Anti-Violence Project in New York.
Cruz uncovers new evidence that suggests foul play in Marsha P Johnson’s death, which was officially ruled as a suicide.
It’s beautifully shot, with old and new footage expertly woven together. Through a series of interviews and video montages, the film explores trans identity, corruption and police discrimination during the early LGBTI movement.
Director David France found rare and never before seen footage in dusty boxes from old friends of Johnson.
France said: ‘Each one of these rare pieces of video and audio was a thrill to uncover.
‘We’d hear rumors about some new piece of footage and we’d chase after those rumors and hopefully find those people and hopefully they still had the footage and hopefully it hadn’t declined from being so old…there was a lot of hoping and a lot of those hopes came true,’ he said.
Johnson and Rivera forced the T into the LGBT acronym. Their struggle for acceptance within their own community is real, but they were also incredibly loving and generous people.
‘Marsha was a fixture in the West Village, known and adored by everybody,’ said France. ‘If you walked down Christopher Street, Marsha would receive you in the manner of a gracious host. She dispensed cheer and joy,’ he said.
The audience is immersed in this cheer and joy, but it’s cruelly snatched away.
Marsha P Johnson: Her fight continues
The film is a blow-by-blow history of trans empowerment, as well as a shocking insight into the prejudices trans people still face today.
We witness the trials and tribulations of the trans movement, including the rejection of trans people at Pride marches in the early 1970s to Johnson and Rivera starting trans youth service, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR).
France said: ‘We have developed an ability in the lexicon of contemporary culture to talk about and understand the arrival of the transgender community in civic life.
‘But we haven’t done nearly enough to address the systemic prejudice against transgendered people, especially transgendered women of color who are at high risk of physical violence, who have trouble finding jobs, who have greater difficulty finding acceptance of any sort.
‘And the ongoing issue, year after year, of fatal violence against young trans women of color is something that has not been adequately tracked or adequately addressed,’ he said.
The documentary shows a clear consciousness for trans issues in the world today.
It explores the recent case of Islan Nettles, a transgender woman savagely beaten and killed in 2013. This is sadly still a common occurrence.
Her ensuing court case and the countless mentions of other brutal attacks sheds light on how vulnerable trans women are, and particularly trans women of color.
If there’s one main message to take away from this film, it’s that the fight of trans people is ours too. We’re a diverse and beautiful community, and when one of us bleeds, we all bleed.
We need a shared and cohesive conscience for all of our brothers and sisters.
Our beautiful trans mothers paved the way during the early LGBTI liberation movement. We owe our respect to these heroes and should continue to fight for equality for all.
Gay Star News viewed the film as part of the East End Film Festival in London.
The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson will be featured on Netflix later this year.