”Tomorrow’s not promised to anyone” – Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson was only 46 when she died.
This documentary is beautifully interspersed with archival footage that complements the narrative powerfully. LGBT rights activist, Victoria Cruz sets out re-investigating the death of beloved Drag Queen, Gay Liberation activist and hero of the Greenwich Village, Marsha P. Johnson.
Johnson was found floating in the Hudson River shortly after the Gay Pride of 1992. The cause of death was officially dismissed as suicide by drowning, with no thorough investigation. Even though there was not sufficient evidence to confirm Johnson was in a suicidal state, but rather evidence that she was being followed and harassed. The lack of police investigations was protested at the time, but like so often with trans victims of abuse, the authorities neglected seeking justice for Marsha.
A third of the way through, I began realising that this documentary was going to be about much more than one person, their death and their life. It is about the trajectory of an entire movement, the long-lasting inspiration of the figure, the era itself in which Marsha was navigating her way through, along with many others. It is about the history of demonstrating, protesting and the staunch, fierce, relentless fight for LGBTQ+ rights.
The film is shot as though a friend is recalling the events to another friend, as the viewer is allowed access to footage of Marsha’s memorial, the safe house that Johnson and Rivera renovated themselves to house vulnerable LGBTQ members of the community, as well as reflecting on the build-up and process of the 1969 Stonewall riots.
France allows for moments of silence and climactic shots which aids the journey of catharsis for the viewer.We get a real sense of who Marsha was through retellings of stories of friends and onlookers. An inventor of true self, Marsha inspired herself and others daily by living an authenticity that cannot be taught. Whilst watching this documentary, I often thought about a quote from Lady Gaga;
“I get to be or choose or make or create whatever it is I am feeling in that moment’‘
– Lady Gaga
Marsha was embodying this freedom in a tumultuous time, one of disunity within her own community. I’m sure there were times where Marsha was sad, disappointed and frustrated but all we see as viewers is an enigmatic optimist. Her smile radiates through the screen, one that is so genuine and loving.
The documentary is mapped out chronologically by also presenting the life of Sylvia Rivera, Marsha’s close friend and activist compadre. Rivera is both beautiful and tragic as she can be seen fighting the good fight, from defending trans rights against the backlash of the gays in the 1970’s to losing her connection with the community and exiling to the waterfront of the Hudson River, after Marsha died, living hopelessly and sinking into alcoholism. The photography of these focal moments on Sylvia is truly powerful.
The hand-help camera provides the humanity necessary for this sensitive moment, as well as zooming to capture the despair in Sylvia’s eyes.
One truly gets the sense at this point of the life draining from the passionate heart of a bygone era.
Perhaps, one of the most heartbreaking fact to come out of this film is that unfortunately, transgender people, (especially those of colour) still suffer discrimination at the hands of the law.
There is a very poignant notion underlying in the documentary, one I was fairly naive to. That is the history of unity within the LGBTQ+ community. This is something that is presented early on in the documentary when 1973 Gay Pride March where the drag queens (of colour) were discouraged from having a prominent place in the parade, being placed right at the back and having to fight for a chance to speak to the people.
France ensures this conversation is confronted by including footage of the trial of the murder of the black, transgender woman Islan Nettles in 2013, of which Cruz and numerous other activists attend, including community advocate, Ted McGuire who is disappointed by the lack of turn out for support for the trial. McGuire states, ‘Everyone was out for gay marriage…the privileged people they got their gay marriage and now. they’re off…they’re gone’.
The documentary is powerful in highlighting many issues whilst utilising the focal point of the re-investigation. The history of demonstrating, taking to the streets is important here. I think this is especially relevant during the situation we are facing at the moment where the world is being called upon to educate, support and fight for justice.
The murder of Islan Nettles only received 12 or so years.
The killer lashed out in embarrassment as he was flirting with Nettles before realising she was a transgender individual.
Islan Nettles died because of ignorance of an individual. She didn’t receive justice because of neglect and prejudice of the justice system.
The more pictures like the one above can and will help raise awareness – silence and invisibility will get the moment nowhere. The story of Islan Nettles is one known all too well at this point. The failure of the justice system and systemic issues that riddle the policing institution discriminate against minorities.
Although Cruz comes to learn some poignant eyewitness details from the night before Marsha was found – it all seems like too little, too late. The documentary ends with a reflective melancholy. Cruz is seen taking a huge folder of all her findings to the FBI. The open-ended climax of the film provides some hope that what happened to Marsha won’t be repeated again and again.
It symbolises the unfailing determination of the LGBTQ+ community to build a better future.
LGBTQ+ Organisations to follow
A few accounts I’ve recently found that I recommend
@janayathefuture – Janaya Khan – Activist, Co-founder of Black Lives Matter, thinker, writer – renaissance figure
@blacktranstravelfund – An organisation that pays for private car rides for Black trans women in NY & NJ so they can self-determine safer transportation options.
@ijeomaoluo – Ijeoma Oluo Editor, Author of ‘So You Want To Talk About Race’
@antiviolence – The NYC Anti Violence project that Victoria Cruz was working alongside and is discussed in the documentary.
@janetmock – Writer, producer, Trans-rights activist
Based in UK – English
@housmans_books – Radical bookshop based in Kings Cross, London.
Based in Netherlands – Dutch
@expreszo.nl …[ WEBPAGE – https://expreszo.nl/]
EyeLyd Statement :
Upon research on this topic, these historical figures and the makers of the film, I came to learn a lot about the history of erasing trans women of colour. I came across an excerpt from the thesis; Terrorising Gender: Transgender Visibility and the Surveillance Practices of the U.S. Security State, written by assistant professor Mia Fisher, within which I cam to learn about the the filmmaker Tourmaline; an transgender activist and filmmaker. In 2017 Tourmaline accused ‘Death and Life….’ Director; David France of plagiarising her idea for documenting the life of Marsha P. Johnson as she had applied for a grant for financial assistance on her own project; Happy Birthday Marsha.
Fisher’s thesis which is highly educational. I read the excerpts here.
And here is The Trap Door- an anthology on trans cultural production of which Tourmaline is an editor.