The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson review – trans icon inspires stirring documentary

How to Survive a Plague director David France explores the heroic life and tragic death of an often forgotten leader of the gay rights movement in this illuminating, if scattershot, film

One of the many awful decisions made in Roland Emmerich’s punishingly tone-deaf 2015 turkey Stonewall was the positioning of a fresh-faced “straight-acting” white twink as the face of the burgeoning gay rights movement in 1960s New York. In an attempt to make an unavoidably queer story more hetero-accessible, Emmerich became part of a tradition of covering up the vital groundwork done by the trans community for the rest of the LGBTQ population.

In his film, there was a brief but forgettable character named Marsha P Johnson, and her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it inclusion betrayed the significance of the role she played. In this new documentary from How to Survive a Plague director David France, Johnson’s work and its legacy is finally being prioritized, a document of sorts for future generations who might otherwise have never recognized her name.

Our protagonist is Victoria Cruz, a trans activist who moved in the same circles as Johnson and has devoted much of her life to the anti-violence project, an organization that aims to investigate and prevent violence against people in the LGBTQ community. In 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson river, a suspected suicide but one caveated with incongruous details. Years later, as unsolved or unjustly ignored murders of transgender women continue, Cruz decides to investigate what led to the death of one of the village’s most influential figures.

It might sound like an unlikely complaint, but given the rich set of characters that France has to play with, there’s almost too much here for a standalone 105-minute film. It results in some slightly scattered storytelling as France tries to find a way to convey the importance of Johnson’s activism, follow Cruz’s investigation of her death, and also tell the story of fellow movement leader Sylvia Rivera. Strangely, the strand that feels least fleshed out is the life of Johnson herself, and despite a title that promises the opposite, we’re still left wanting on the details of her upbringing and her time in New York. But what France does successfully portray is the effect Johnson had on the community – the film is filled with fond recollections of her exuberance and unwillingness to back down.

There’s a remarkable through-line of courage from early trans pioneers who were recurring victims of police brutality while also being shunned by the LGBTQ majority, right through to the activists who spend their time fighting for justice for those who are murdered because of their identity. The slightly forced true-crime structure doesn’t quite pay off (the unfiltered facts of the case and the shocking police apathy to Johnson’s death work well enough by themselves) but Cruz is a compellingly low-key lead, her muted demeanor belying a life of earnest struggle. Rivera also proves to be a fascinating interviewee, her outspoken early place at the forefront of the battle for equality leading to a difficult life of alcoholism and homelessness.

Outside a courthouse that’s the setting for a case involving yet another murdered trans woman of color, an activist remarks on the feeling of being left behind, that after same-sex marriage became legal, the “privileged” felt as if the fight was over. Through an interweaving of then and now, France shows that the struggle continues and for many, progress appears to be non-existent. It’s a bittersweet film: for every strong figure willing to put their life on the line for a bigger cause, there’s another who’s been beaten or murdered as a direct result for displaying such braveness.

Given that The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson eventually found its home on Netflix, one feels that it would have worked more successfully as a series, allowing its characters and their lives more room to breathe. It would also have meant more time could be awarded to Johnson herself, whose legacy is here but whose life deserves more screen time.

  • The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson is released on Netflix on 6 October.


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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