Marsha P. Johnson died almost exactly 25 years ago, on July 6, 1992. For many of her friends, family, and admirers, her death still remains shrouded in mystery two and a half decades later. After Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River, police ruled the death a suicide. Friends and family dispute that she showed any suicidal indicators, and the death was much more likely the result of an attack. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson fashions itself as a true-crime documentary investigation, the mystery being unravelled by trans activist and advocate at NYC Anti-Violence Project., Victoria Cruz. Cruz tacks up notes with possible theories - “suicide,” “dirty cop,” “4 guidos,” “accident,” “mob” – and makes calls to police officers and administrators to find more information, mostly to no avail. The mystery-solving set-up structures the film, but is ultimately one of its weakest points. Discussions about suicide are complicated and heavy, and the way that the film mostly limits itself to simplistic comments like “She couldn’t have, she was happy the day before” is understandable, but not the most illuminating. It would be an overstatement to claim that solving the mystery is beside the point; Cruz and many other trans activists in the film are understandably adamant that the truth be uncovered and justice sought. In the investigations though, the film indicates that whether the death was a murder or a suicide, the inhospitably hateful culture in which the trans women leading the revolution for queer pride lived in were responsible.
In many ways, the film is also a measure of how far American culture has come in its treatment of trans women – and how far it hasn’t. When Johnson and her peers, like Sylvia Rivera, fought back in the Stonewall riots and tried to launch a revolution, trans politics were not exactly on any mainstream agendas. “Transgender” was not even an identifying term for most of these women as they navigated gender and sexuality; they mostly identified or were labelled as drag queens or “transvestites.” Rivera and Johnson’s organization was even called “Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries.” In archival footage, Johnson is seen dressed in both masculine and feminine clothing, and when loved ones speak about her they switch between gender pronouns, often within a sentence. It’s unclear whether this fluidity was due to Johnson’s gender fluid identity or whether it was just more difficult for her to transition to the female identity she felt. Establishing acceptable terminology for discussing and respecting trans identities is perhaps the clearest example of how far popular consciousness has come – of course, whether people use it is another matter, unfortunately.
Trans women are faced with more than hurtful semantics, though. In the late sixties and early seventies, New York queer bars were raided by police, women were imprisoned, and rates of violence were higher than for cis citizens, as were unemployment and homelessness. In one especially painful clip from the 1973 New York Pride Parade, Rivera tearfully shouts about how she has been beaten, lost jobs and apartments, all for the queer revolution, only to have it co-opted by middle class white gay men. She’s met with boos from the crowd and barely allowed to speak. This kind of systemic discrimination against and disdain towards trans women, and especially trans women of colour, has perhaps changed, but certainly not enough. To this effect, Cruz’s unofficial investigation into Johnson’s death is placed alongside the official trial of a man for the death of Islan Nettles, a trans woman of colour murdered in 2013. Clearly, the violence has not stopped.
Like most crime documentaries, the film positions itself on the side of court justice, hoping for the system to start treating the deaths of trans women as fairly as it would treat a cis person’s murder. In the Nettles case, the attacker is actually sentenced to twelve years in prison. One trans activist responds by claiming that the murderer will get out with ten years and not have learned his lesson; this claim feels disconnected from the reality of black men’s experience in prison and many radical queer activists like Dean Spade would argue that individualizing systemic issues in this way and feeding the prison industrial complex is a mistake that feeds into cis/heteronormative white supremacist capitalism more than helping queer individuals. This is a complicated political discussion that is perhaps beyond the scope of a 105-minute documentary primer on a single queer icon.
As such a primer, though, the film is excellent. As a celebration of the revolutionary, prideful spirit of Marsha P. Johnson, the film was a brilliant way to kick off OUTeast. This is also essential viewing for audiences outside of the queer community as a very accessible introduction to the discrimination faced by trans women. As one person remarks in the film, people turned out to march for gay marriage, but nobody turns up after the murder of a trans woman of colour. Hopefully the documentary can shift agendas to become more aware of this. Netflix has acquired rights to the film, with a release planned for later in 2017; if you missed the film make sure to check it out, and if you saw it, make sure to tell your friends.