Apr 22, 2017

Screening at Tribeca: "The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson"

Transgender activist Martha P. Johnson in one of her signature headdresses of fresh flowers.

Place almost any adjective in front of the word “woman”—poor or gay or immigrant—and she disappears. This is especially true in federal crime statistics: African-American women, and other marginalized groups of women, including Native Americans, are not differentiated in those numbers, although it is common knowledge among law enforcement and legal authorities that they are more often victims of violent crimes, including sexual assault. Marsha P. Johnson’s adjectives were “transvestite,” “transgender” and “African-American.”

Marsha was a drag queen, a fixture of the Manhattan neighborhoods of Chelsea and the West Village. She was a hero of Stonewall, the 1969 riots that marked the gay rights movement. Marsha's broad smile and her kooky outfits led passersby who knew nothing about the gay rights movement to stop and speak with her. She sometimes gave them flowers or a string of beads she happened to be wearing.

In The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, documentarian David France (How to Survive a Plague, 2012) profiles his eponymous subject’s lifelong activism through an investigation into her death. In 1992, Marsha’s body was found floating in the Hudson River; although authorities ruled it a suicide, fellow activists never accepted the finding. Neither did Victoria Cruz.

This is a still of Ms. Cruz from David France's documentary. (Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival)
 An investigator for the New York City Anti-Violence Project (“AVP”), Ms. Cruz revisits the “cold case,” reopened in 2012 by the NYPD—and France chronicles her dogged search for the truth. The result is a disturbing story of discrimination and corruption, as well as the tale of a persistent, although little-discussed rift in the gay community, that of the lack of acceptance of trans women.

Through interviews with family members, lovers, friends and fellow activists, we get a glimpse of Marsha's charm, but France’s documentary is also a quest for understanding, a profiling of the cultural, political and economic forces that oppressed Marsha. They are emblematic of the forces that often fell heroes.