‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’ pays tribute to trans icon

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Editor’s Note: The arts and entertainment department is adjusting its grading scale from a letter-grade system to a numeric score out of 5. This change is intended to increase accuracy and consistency between reviews. 

“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” directed by David France, was shown Saturday of Pride weekend as part of the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival. The film documents the life and mysterious death of trans activist, drag queen and gay liberation leader Marsha P. Johnson.

Marsha P. Johnson is a prominent figure in trans history, well-known as a veteran of the Stonewall riots and the co-founder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR. Johnson’s death in 1992 was ruled a suicide without further investigation, even though, as the film reveals, there was significant confounding evidence to prove otherwise.

This documentary unfolds like an investigation — it follows Victoria Cruz, a volunteer at New York City’s Anti-Violence Project, as she works to reopen the 25-year-old cold case of Johnson’s death. This tragedy was a prominent example of the horrible violence that trans women, especially trans women of color, face. But more than that, the astounding lack of support for Cruz’s investigation truly shed light on just how marginalized this community is. Sadly, even someone as iconic and influential as Marsha P. Johnson, who Cruz called the “Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement,” was not awarded justice.

“They’re yelling out from their graves for justice,” Cruz says of the victims of trans violence.

The investigation into Johnson’s death provides a template for the entire film, keeping the audience intrigued with moments of tension, while seamlessly weaving in interviews with friends and family of Johnson, as well as occasional footage of Johnson herself. Following the film’s screening, France mentioned that finding this archival footage was one of the main challenges in creating the documentary — despite her fame, there were very few mainstream archives of Johnson, and those that they found were usually given nameless, generic titles such as “drag queens” or “transvestites.” It’s another blatant reminder of how seldom trans individuals have been treated as actual people, especially when documented by the media.

Although “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” explores an event 25 years in the past, its message could not be shared at a more critical time in history. When more transgender women were murdered in 2016 than any other year before, it is clear that change is necessary, and this film does a beautiful job of highlighting exactly that. And even though her case still remains unsolved, in a way, this film did still bring justice to Marsha P. Johnson — by telling her story and exposing the oppression that she gave her life fighting against.

Contact Julia Bertolero at [email protected].