Review: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

Picture of By Kajsa Rosenblad

By Kajsa Rosenblad

Netflix just released a documentary depicting the death of transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson and the questionable police investigation that followed it. Johnson is one of the most important people in LGBT history, in the US and worldwide. Her activism made way for generations of activists, but as the documentary shows, we still have a long way to go. In this review, we invite you to step into an important, yet painfully forgotten part of the history of social activism.

Marsha P. Johnson was born in in 1945 as Malcolm Michaels. She was an African-American drag queen, gay- and trans activist. During her life she was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, as well as a co-founder of STAR: Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries. During the turbulent events leading up to the Stonewall uprising in 1969 she was a prominent figure, together with best friend Sylvia Rivera. She was loved by her community as well as by the art world – she modeled for Andy Warhol and performed with the drag performance group Hot Peaches. In 1992, her body was found in the Hudson River, in New York. The police said it was suicide, but those who knew her believed there could be something else, much darker behind her sudden death.

In the documentary directed by David France, we follow trans activist Victoria Scott from the Anti-Violence Project in New York as she reopens the investigation into Johnson’s death. As she digs deeper into the past, we are also faced with a more relevant case of hate crime against a transgender woman, namely that of Isla Nettles, who was brutally murdered in 2013. The perpetrator claimed to have handled in shock: he did not know that the woman he was flirting with was born a man. When he found out, he was so ‘shocked’ that he beat her to death.

Appealing to shock is a common defense when faced with charges of hate crime against transgender people. Sadly, it is effective. Isla Nettles murderer could have been sentenced to 25 years in jail, but only got 12 years. During 2017, 21 transgender people have already been murdered in the US. In many of these cases we will never know the truth of what happened. As with Marsha P. Johnson.

The documentary carefully portrays the life of Marsha P. Johnson and her best friend and fellow activist Sylvia Rivera, as well as the brute treatment of the investigation into her death. The documentary is beautifully filmed, merging old material of Marsha with newly produced interviews with friends and relatives. The director manages to keep the tone mildly accusational at all times, meaning that it criticizes both the gay community, as well as the police and the mafia. There were many actors at stake when it comes to Johnson’s death, and Victoria Scott prods into them all.

The gay liberation movement was, and is, fighting an unfair battle, which you can see in legislation all over the world

However, the overarching accusation is, of course, directed towards the white, hetero-normative structure which ultimately has blood on its hands. The gay liberation movement was, and is, fighting an unfair battle, which you can see in legislation all over the world. 72 countries still have laws criminalizing homosexuality, and in some countries, it can be punished by death. This is not the only heart-breaking example of laws targeting the LGBT community. For an extensive overview, you can take a look here.

This documentary is a must see. It is important that we know the history of the struggle, if we want to be able to continue a fight for a fairer world. It is also important for everyone to recognize Marsha P. Johnson as one of the founders of the LGBT movement. Attempts of white washing LGBT history are painfully evident in popular culture, with the movie ‘Stonewall’ as an embarrassing example. Here, a white male character basically took Johnson’s rightful place as the leader of the Stonewall uprising. We can not and must not discredit her fight. Netflix managed to produce a respectful yet accusational documentary that leaves you feeling angry, guilty (if you are white and cis like I am) and determined to be a better ally to all trans people out there.

Cover: Julyo

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