Revolving around the mysterious death of one prominent sexual minority activist, Netflix documentary film “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” vividly illuminates an overlooked aspect of the LGBTQ activism in US during the 1970-90s. While it initially draws our attention via its mystery elements, the documentary ultimately functions as a touching tribute to its title figure and other remarkable trans women presented in the film, and their stories are inspiring to say the least.
In the beginning, we get the basic details of the death of Marsha P. Johnson, a trans woman activist who was born in 1945 as Malcolm Michaels. On July 6th, 1992, her body was found floating in the Hudson River, and the police simply concluded that she committed suicide, but many people who were close to Johnson did not believe that at all. Sure, she did live a tough life on the streets of Greenwich Village in Manhattan just like many other trans women during that time, but she always went forward with her spirited attitude, and that was the main reason why some of her close friends suspected that she was murdered by someone.
Although more than 20 years have passed since Johnson’s death, Victoria Cruz, a trans woman who was one of Johnson’s friends, still wants to know what really happened to her friend. Although she is about to retire from her position in New York City’s Anti-Violence Project, she is determined to do as much as she could, and we see her patiently trying to get any bit of new information involved with Johnson’s death. She tries to contact the retired policemen who handled the case, but they all flatly reject her, and she cannot even get a copy of the autopsy report on Johnson’s body just because it seems to be lost somehow. Although she manages to get its partial copy later, that does not tell anything new about her friend’s death, and she understandably becomes frustrated.
Meanwhile, she visits not only Johnson’s family members but also several people who knew Johnson. Johnson’s two siblings fondly remember their sister, and there is a brief amusing moment when they laugh a bit about how terrible she was as a singer. Randy Wicker, who was Johnson’s roommate and colleague before her death, is as colorful as his flamboyant attire, and he tells us a story about how Johnson came and then began to stay in his apartment. At one point, Cruz goes to a prison for meeting a bulky trans woman incarcerated in that prison, and that trans woman also has her own story about Johnson, who was a sort of mother figure to many young trans people in Greenwich Village.
Although she is only presented via a mix of various archival materials, Johnson comes to us a spirited lady who did not step back at all while enjoying being herself. As a matter of fact, she and her close friend Sylvia Rivera were two of the principle figures of the Stonewall Riots in the summer of 1969, and they later founded Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR) for promoting the civil rights of trans people. In a small shabby apartment in Greenwich Village, they provided a shelter for their fellow trans women, and they soon became prominent figures in their small community.
Of course, Johnson and Rivera went through many difficult moments like other trans women, and the documentary shows us how they were discriminated not only outside but also inside their world. While they were frequently mistreated and abused by policemen, they were also overlooked and ostracized as a minor group of LGBTQ community, and we see how they were unfairly prevented from being on the frontline of LGBTQ activism. As shown from one archival footage clip, Rivera tried as much as she could at a big public meeting, but she was constantly heckled during her short speech on the stage, and that painful experience eventually made her leave New York City for a while.
What happened to her after that is the most dramatic part in the film. Not long after Johnson’s death, River came back to New York City, but then she became an alcoholic homeless living around the spot where her friend’s body was found, and an old TV news report clip shows us how gloomy her life was during that time. Fortunately, she came to get some help from other trans women and then recovered, and she dedicated the rest of her life to LGBTQ activism until she died in 2002 due to liver cancer.
The documentary also pays considerable attention to Cruz, who is full of life and personality just like Johnson and Rivera. When she is in front of her former workplace, she tells us about how she came to be helped by the Anti-Violence Project after being sexually harassed by her co-workers, and the documentary reminds us of how frequently trans women have been assaulted or murdered in US every year. One of the most recent examples is the tragic death of a young trans woman named Islan Nettles, and Cruz and other activists are not so pleased when a young man responsible for Nettles’ death receives a lighter punishment than expected.
“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” is directed by David France, who was Oscar-nominated for his first feature documentary film “How to Survive a Plague” (2012), which is about the AIDS activism during the 1980-90s. Both of these two documentaries powerfully present the social progresses won by hard fights, and they will enlighten you on their serious social subjects while touching you a lot. Yes, there should be more progress for sexual minority people out there, and we should support them as fellow human beings.