By Jessica Xing, Contributing Writer
Marsha P. Johnson, a black transgender woman, was one of the most prominent figures in the Stonewall uprising in 1969: she is cited as the first to fight back when police raided the bar. She was also the one who organized a sit in protest in front of Weinstein Hall at New York University when administrators canceled a dance sponsored by gay organizations in the area. More importantly, Johnson and close friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, an organization whose aim was to provide housing for homeless transgender people. According to David France, director of “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” and “How to Survive a Plague,” if you were queer in NYC during the 70’s, you knew who Johnson was.
“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” focuses on Johnson’s supposed suicide: it is an investigative documentary centering around one of Johnson’s friends, Victoria Cruz. Cruz aims to reopen the case surrounding Johnson’s death, and as she looks at more evidence, it becomes clear that Johnson is only one of many trans deaths that have been ignored by the justice system.
Johnson’s death becomes a lens through which France looks into how transgender people have been marginalized — not only by the police force and the city, but also by the LGBT community. France depicts the rejection from all different support systems to illustrate how tightly knit the trans community had to be to survive in the 1970s — if they didn’t look out for each other, it was unclear who would.
Being that Cruz was once one of Johnson’s close friends, the documentary is a look into not just a political history but a personal one. The question of Johnson’s supposed suicide is not answered in the film, but her death is felt deeply both by the queer community today and her friends. It is heartbreaking to witness the sheer pain Sylvia Rivera experiences after the death of Johnson, yet this loss is what later brings the trans community closer. The trans community struggles to hold everyone together after the death of Johnson, but through Johnson’s legacy, they manage to uphold the message and morale she kept alive.
“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” is a film about heartbreak, but it is also about rebellion — about fighting to carve a community in a place that aims to reject you at every turn. The documentary’s empowering message will resonate with the queer community of our time and continue to remind the power and impact transgender people have on their own history.
“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” was released on Netflix on Friday, Oct. 6.