'Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson' highlights crushing losses in fight for trans women

Diana Davies
review
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Victoria Cruz, a trans woman working at New York's Anti-Violence Project, spends most of The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson searching. She's set to retire from the Anti-Violence Project but wants to solve one last cold case: the death of trans activist legend Marsha P. Johnson. 

Documentary director David France, best known for How to Survive a Plague, follows her intently, as invested in her search as she is. Johnson died under mysterious circumstances, her death ruled a suicide but questioned by members of the LGBTQ communities in New York City. For Cruz, this is a chance not only to right the wrongs of the past, but also heal the root of society's epidemic of violence against trans women.

So it's all the more devastating when, just as it seems she's making some progress, Cruz — and thus The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, which is playing at the Tribeca Film Festival — is stopped in her tracks. She's constrained by governmental interference, limited resources and, unfortunately, apathy from the community. As trans people are killed at astonishing rates, Cruz finds she can't solve the most infamous case of all. 

It's in this futility, and in the impassioned fight for trans lives despite the challenges, that The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson finds its strength.

Marsha P. Johnson  France & Tomchin

To paint his portrait of an oft-lionized woman, France turns to the closest figures in Johnson's life: her former roommate Randy Wicker, her friends and archival footage of her partner in activism Sylvia Rivera. If France's depiction of Johnson feels a bit too reverent at times, blemish-free to a fault, that's merely a corrective to the utter disregard Johnson got from heterosexual society.

But France and his camera's subjects save the most frustration not for the straight people who treated Johnson poorly, but for the queer people who forgot her and people like her. In one particularly powerful sequence, Rivera rages against gay people at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day rally for not standing up for their trans sisters and brothers.

Source: Calpernia/YouTube

Rivera's words resonate just as strongly in 2017, a time where Johnson's name is not the universal rallying cry it should be as she gets underwritten in her own history. You need not look farther than CBS on a Wednesday night to see gay men betraying trans people. On a much larger scale, those gay men who chose to support President Donald Trump turned their backs on trans people.

Marriage equality, one interview subject in the documentary notes, was a rallying moment for the community. The fight for trans rights has been much less universal across all the letters of the LGBTQ spectrum. Thus the fight remains mired in futility, as little progress is made in the fight for protections for trans people. When Islan Nettles is murdered for being trans, and her killer only gets 12 years, that should be a watershed moment. Instead, it's all-too-quickly forgotten, just as Rivera and Johnson were.

All this makes The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson a total gut-wrench. How little progress have we made? How have we made so little progress in the fight for trans lives in the decades since Johnson died? And why can't Cruz just solve this one case?

Victoria Cruz  France & Tomchin

Eventually, Cruz is shut down before finding answers, and resorts to submitting her evidence to the FBI. There's no happy ending to this documentary, no grand solution that helps find justice for Johnson. Sadly, that's all too appropriate: While Cruz's boss tells her the Anti-Violence Project needs to redirect efforts on cases like Nettles', even that energy feels committed to an impossible fight.

Progress must be made, but The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson argues that's not happening until the community comes together to fight for trans men and women. The hope for the future is that eventually, straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer people will uniformly wake up and realize that if marriage equality was worth a national campaign, hundreds of dead trans people is worth so much more.

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