[Documentary Review] David France’s ‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’ (2017)
Content warning - mention of transphobia and murder
This award-winning David France directorial is about a transgender activist who died under circumstances which remain shrouded in mystery: Marsha P. Johnson. The camera mainly follows Victoria Cruz, an American LGBTQ+ rights activist, who reopens a cold case and tries to get to the bottom of what might have happened to Marsha.
When I first saw the trailer, I was hooked. It was riveting; I found myself wanting to know more. I craved to know more. And this is not just about an ‘interesting story’ or a ‘murder mystery thriller’, it’s about a trans individual, a trans rights’ activist, a human before anything, who died; whose death remains a question to this day. A question that I wanted answers to.
Why? Because Marsha went out one day and poof! Disappeared. Vanished altogether until her body was found floating in a river. An investigation into her death, which should have been carried out thoroughly (not unlike so many others that aren’t), went cold as quickly as it began: all under the bile of discrimination and injustice.
This documentary, ‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’, is a rollercoaster ride. Just not the fun kind. An investigative journey into Marsha’s mysterious death, it manages to keep one on the edge of their seat. What really happened to Marsha? What happened to him? Well, gripping as it may be, the movie conveys little about Marsha’s ‘life and death’, as the title suggests it would. The film shuttles back and forth between the past and present: the audience sees numerous recordings and clips from the past but discovers little to nothing about Marsha’s life. The theme and scenes hover around the question of her death: whether he was murdered, or if she committed suicide.
In my opinion, the movie did a great job giving the viewers a peek into trans people’s lives and the origins of the pride movement. Although the movie was centered around Marsha’s death, it afforded an earnest insight into the struggles of transpersons: the unsurety of even being alive the coming day, more than financial destitution or social ostracization, hard as they are. In this capacity, the movie is very impactful. It gives one answer to the question of ‘Why Pride?’. Why must one support the LGBTQIA+ community? It helps one understand why we need to understand these issues when fellow humans are dying for being true to themselves, even as many watch and worse, turn a blind eye to their plight. For all it’s work in this direction, I was still unsatisfied with the film. Don’t get me wrong; I was emotionally stirred and made to think actively as I watched, but I guess I desired more. I wanted answers but all I was left with was more questions: all of them pointing towards the unsettled issue of Marsha’s death.
In addition to the pivotal theme of Marsha’s demise, the film traces the case of a transwoman who was beaten to death (an issue that isn’t unheard of in today’s India either). While this parallel narration lent more power to the ‘Why Pride?’ notion, it also made the progression of the film confusing. What would’ve helped resolve the former theme, and perhaps give the story more power, would be a depiction of Marsha’s 46-year-old journey; her formative years, his adolescence, her life. I expected more to be said about how most transwomen “...are underage girls who are throwaways rather than runaways”. The running theme of sadness takes the viewer from out in violent alleyways, through the dirty cop crime zone, shady sites, violence, blood, and bruises, to Death. The uncertain but definite death of a person, yet the idea survived.
And that brings me to the importance of the gay pride movement and Marsha’s timeless contributions to queer persons’ rights as they are today. There was some evidence of trans persons standing up before Marsha’s time but he was the spark that lit the fire: he and many people with her. People who spent their lives fighting for basic human rights, their rights. Most prominently displayed is Sylvia Rivera. She, too, has played a pivotal role in the American gay liberation and trans rights movements. Numerous scenes in the movie show the cops barge into their homes and beat them bloody. A particular scene showed Marsha smiling after she was hit, bleeding, stuffed into a cop car. Through Marsha’s demise, Sylvia talks about continuing his work; about continuing to fight.
The movie also shows clips of other people who have been with Marsha, talking about her. One clip that struck me most was of Victoria visiting Marsha’s family to get a letter requesting forensic reports and the like, signed. It is then that her family reveals that they hadn’t been allowed to see Marsha’s body. They were told that she had died and that was all. This made me question things. First, the cause of Marsha’s death: why wouldn’t her family be allowed to see her body? Second, the blatant abuse that transpersons face: if this is the situation in the light, I wonder what is in the dark?
To summarise, despite the underlying plot remaining unresolved, the film is gripping in its narration, gives gainful insight into the trans pride and gay liberation movements as we see them today, and conveys a harrowing truth that lives on even after the movie has ended. It is this lingering emotion that made me realise how we are all equal but, still, some of us (quite a lot, to be honest), don’t ever get to experience the equality that they deserve.
Now, perhaps you are wondering why I have referred to Marsha using ‘her’ and ‘his’ interchangeably; well, it is because Marsha believed that those of us who keep obsessing over pronouns are doctors of English. Marsha didn’t care. She chose to be whatever he wanted to be.
If you’ve made it reading this far, I recommend you watch the movie the first chance you get. It is an important piece of work that deserves the broadest audience it can reach. It shows us how the fight for social justice is ongoing, and what one must do to contribute to it. Furthermore, it enables us to appreciate what has been done by people like Marsha and Sylvia, to that end. Let's hoist the colours high!
This piece has been written by Kushagra Jajoo, a 22-year-old going through a period of colossal unlearning, for The Night Owl.