Why I’m not excited about “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson”

Academy Award® nominated director David France’s (How to Survive a Plague) new documentary centers on self-described “street queen” Marsha P. Johnson, legendary fixture in New York City’s gay ghetto, who along with fellow trans icon Sylvia Rivera, founded Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), a trans activist group based in the heart of NYC’s Greenwich Village. Mysteriously, Marsha was found floating in the Hudson River in 1992. At the time, the NYPD pegged her death as a suicide, a claim that Marsha’s comrades have always firmly rejected. Structured as a whodunit, with activist Victoria Cruz cast as detective and audience surrogate, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson celebrates the lasting political legacy of Marsha P. Johnson, while seeking to finally solve the mystery of her unexplained death.

That’s how the makers of “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” describe their new film.  Set to be released by Netflix, this documentary is poised to become the most accessible work about Marsha’s life.   A few people have already asked me what I think of it.  Since I haven’t been able to see it yet, it would be smart to keep my mouth shut, but I will say this: I’m worried.

The cons:

I’m struggling to think of a documentary I would like to watch less than a “whodunit” about Marsha’s death.   It’s been Marsha’s life that’s nourished me as a trans person, not her death.  Too often, trans people are treated as notable only because we have died.  Once we are buried, our lives and deaths our mined to support the political agendas of people who ignored us while we were living.  Honestly, I hesitate to use the word “us” when describing this dynamic.  It is overwhelmingly Black trans women who are subjected to this posthumous violence.  Black trans women like Marsha are not only murdered at staggering rates much higher than any other segment of the LGBT community.  Their deaths are also the ones that politicians, nonprofits, researchers, and white activists draw on to support their own agendas and make their own careers.  Documentarians too.

Black trans women like Marsha are often overlooked when they are living.  In fact, many media representations present them as already dead: Black trans women are presented as living “risky lifestyles,” as pathetic freaks, as criminally deceptive, and as inviting violence against them.  Similar to the way that Trayvon Martin was all but put on trial for his own murder, Black women are blamed for their own deaths while they’re still living.  Black people, including Black women, have endured and resisted necropolitics like this since slavery.   We do not need another documentary that traffics in the deaths of Black trans women.

Yes, Marsha P. Johnson was likely murdered.  Please believe me when I tell you that her death was the least interesting thing about her.  She was an artist, a friend, a mentor, a caretaker, an organizer, a queen, a revolutionary, a spiritual leader, a fashion icon, an innovator, a political theorist, and a vulnerable, precious person.  If “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” focuses on her death, it may miss her all together.  If this film prioritizes her death over Marsha’s life, I hope that it is criticized and boycotted.  Twitter, get ready.  Lock and load the think-pieces.

The potential:

As I said, I haven’t been able to see the film yet.  There is a chance that it’s great.  Likely, it will be both good and problematic.  I am committed to giving the film a fair chance and I promise to share my review with you.

I’m cautiously optimistic about the inclusion of Victoria Cruz.  She is an incredible activist.  Her involvement might turn this around.  I’m eager to support her work and I hope this film does her justice.

What I’ll be watching for:

Yeah, I want to know if this movie is historically accurate, but the way that facts are framed matters.  These are the elements that I’m hoping will be present in the film.

  • Marsha’s politics: Marsha described herself as a revolutionary. She was a part of articulating some of the most important transgender political thought in the contemporary era.   Her activism and analysis should be central to any movie about her.
  • Marsha’s Black womanhood: Marsha has been co-opted as a gay figure, but she was clear in her life that she was a Black trans woman. Her race and gender should be made visible.  Let’s get some meaningful intersectional analysis going.
  • Marsha’s friends: Marsha had a huge community and no film is complete without the people who mattered to her. Sylvia Rivera should be central to this film.  Marsha’s longtime friend and roommate R. Wicker also deserves to be mentioned.  In fact, I hope Wicker was consulted during the creative process.  If Wicker isn’t a big part of this film, that’s a red flag.
  • Marsha’s sisters: I want to hear the voices of living, Black trans women in this documentary. They deserve to be represented, especially after the filmmakers have claimed that they hope this documentary will prevent the murders of trans women today.  They need to hand over the mic to the women who are impacted by that violence.

What to watch instead:

“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” is filmed by David France, a gay white cis man.  There are some great documentaries and films created by trans women of color that deserve your attention too.

  • Happy Birthday Marsha – this is the one I’ve been waiting on for years. Reina Gossett tells the story of Marsha’s day leading up to the night of the Stonewall Riots.  I’ve written about it before; check it out.
  • Major! – This documentary provides a glimpse into the life of a trans hero still living, Miss Major Griffin-Gracie. Miss Major is a Stonewall veteran, a long-time prison abolitionist, and a mentor to a generation of Black trans women.   Don’t miss her story and the opportunity to support her while she’s still with us.
  • Free CeCe – Free CeCe describes the extraordinary resistance of CeCe McDonald, a Black trans woman imprisoned for defending herself against racist, transphobic violence. You wanna watch this one.
  • Pay it no Mind – The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson: Oh, yeah, there’s a perfectly good documentary out about Marsha already and you can watch it for free on Youtube. Get to it.


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