Review: The Death And Life of Marsha P Johnson

With the 28th anniversary of Marsha P Johnson’s untimely death having just passed us on 6th July, some of us may be revisiting the 2017 documentary The Life and Death of Marsha P Johnson, available on Netflix. Having been directed by David France and presented by LGBT rights activist and a case manager for the New York Anti Violence Project Victoria Cruz, also transgender, Cruz aims to shed more light on the impact of Marsha’s life, whilst simultaneously seeking justice and answers regarding her suspicious circumstances of her death.

Marsha P Johnson is famously known as one of the prominent figures of the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Born in a large African American, catholic family in New Jersey as Malcolm Michaels Junior in 1945, the LGBT community was far removed from Johnson’s life until she moved to Greenwich Village, New York, in 1966 at the age of 17. It was in this city Johnson could truly become herself and become the figure many of us are grateful for today.

Whilst the village was known as an enclave of bohemia and progressive ideas, Cruz reminds us this progressive thought didn’t run at the same speed for all groups as it was still illegal to be dressed in drag in the 1960’s and many drag queens, including Johnson, were arrested for this multiple times. Friends of Johnson, most notably Sylvia Rivera, let us into their world of what it was like to be a trans woman of colour or on the ‘fringe of society’ in the latter part of the 20th century via interviews and old footage. The trial of the late Islan Nettles is interspersed amidst this as a stark reminder of the cruelty that still befalls the trans community today.

Whilst the investigation of Johnson’s death is recurrent throughout the documentary, Cruz’s detective work consistently highlights the failings which occurred in the original investigation in 1992 when Marsha was found in the Hudson River, as well as the infuriating apathy surrounding the truth of the cause of her death in the present. Footage from the 1990’s show people protesting for the police to do their jobs and investigate it properly as the ruling of it being suicide was never substantiated and seemed unlikely to be the case, as stated by friends who knew her.

This Netflix documentary will have you screaming at your laptop as you wonder if it is a requirement to be as racist, homophobic, transphobic, and apathetic as possible to be part of the police force. Several times Victoria hits a dead end as she uncovers new information on witnesses that followed Marsha in the early hours of the morning before her death – which was shockingly never previously recorded by anyone previously investigating the case. She is hung up on by the detective that originally took the case, James Abreu and unable to retrieve the case file as the office is suspiciously ‘unable to locate it’.

Even in life, the documentary shows Marsha as well as other trans women of colour, never got the respect they deserved. Old footage is shown of Sylvia forcibly taking to the stage during the 1973 Pride march – after being banned from the parade – in protest of this. Marsha rightfully states ‘If it wasn’t for a drag queen, there would be no gay liberation movement’, something many people fail to acknowledge today. The documentary illuminates Marsha’s legacy, such as co-founding STAR (the organisation for homeless queer youth), involvement in Stonewall and in speaking out for queer rights.

However, the social commentary on how she and many others have been failed for so long, even when brutally murdered takes precedence over some parts of her life. The present day filming of Islan reminds us how far we are to go as her murder received a relatively short sentence. Cruz is tearful when we see this verdict and we’re left with more cynicism and questions in some ways. Will justice ever be received for Marsha and the numerous other trans people being killed today? How much has really changed since stonewall? Why have trans people and POC’s been pushed out of the LGBT+ movement they created?

Saying this, it certainly illuminates a light on Marsha’s larger than life persona and we get to see her own family being surprised that she actually modelled for Andy Warhol. We get warm anecdotes from friends and family that tell us of her kind, caring nature. She is describes as having always taking care of people, mothering them and of course Cruz herself coins Marsha as being the ‘Rosa Parks of the queer movement’. People that want to know what Marsha ‘Pay no mind’ Johnson was like beyond just her activism, will love watching this to find out what she was like as a person from loved ones close to her.

Conversely, it will also make people want to look further into her life as the documentary is not long enough to go into her battles with her mental health, her earlier life in detail and the work she did with ACT UP, the aids organisation. As the documentary places her death and character more centrally, we cannot get the complete picture of this vivacious, vibrant pioneer of the LGBT movement, but it is a heartfelt documentary that shows she was as colourful queen of a character that light up the streets of the village and it is simultaneously a better place because of her, yet just as dark as her light was taken away too soon.

The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson is available to stream on Netflix now.

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