The LGBT history and the fight for equality is sadly filled with hatred, animosity and prejudice from the outside world, as well as a whole host of seemingly insurmountable obstacles – but how many of us know of the bad blood and bitterness that went on inside the gay rights movement between actual queer folks and transgender people? The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson offers a unique perspective on liberation for gender nonconforming individuals and is an imperative documentary for anyone looking to fully understand the origins and evolution of the LGBT movement. Its presence in this year’s East End Film Festival edition was a bold, but necessary addition – and is most certainly worth a watch.
Marsha P. Johnson was an outspoken and courageous black transgender activist who fought for equality and protection against bigotry and hostility until the very end of her life. She was an unforgettable pioneer for the gay rights movement and was one of the first activists who extended compassion and acceptance towards fellow transgendered people and other gender nonconforming communities. Her advocacy was truly unique and inspired thousands all over the world. While David France’s film does her justice in terms of attempting to elucidate the mystery behind her death, the documentary only scratches the surface of her bold and earnest activism and offers the viewer merely a glimpse, albeit a riveting one, of her lifelong work and dedication. Nonetheless, the collection of interviews, archived footage and memoirs depicted in the film create a poignant and accurate picture of Johnson’s gargantuan efforts to dissolve both individual and systematic homophobia, as well as to make the movement more inclusive of the trans community.
Although each new conversation with someone who knew Marsha is gripping and enlightening in regard to her work, the activist’s unrelenting personality and kind heart are unmistakably visible in the gathered footage that depicts her with other LGBT members at various protests and events. Having changed her name from Michelle to P Johnson (after the renowned American entrepreneur Howard Johnson), Marsha decided to continue fighting for a seemingly unattainable goal and, consequently, her reach unfolded far beyond the Stonewall riots. The P in her name stood for “pay no mind”, three simple, but powerful words that also happened to convince one of Johnson’s judges at the time to let her off the hook and disregard her jail sentence. This ultimately seems to be France’s core message for the viewer – injustice cannot live forever; but while it’s still alive and kicking, focus on the most efficient way to eradicate it and not on the hatred it spawns.
An essential takeaway from France’s documentary is also the surprising or even shocking animosity towards transgender people within the LGBT community and its effects on the gay rights movement as a whole. Many gender nonconforming individuals, particularly those from the newer generation, seem to be unaware of the origin and messy history of LGBT. Transphobia, prejudice towards bisexuals and even racism was prevalent in the evolution of the gay rights movement – and, unfortunately, to this day we still witness remnants of it in what is allegedly one of society’s safest and most accepting communities. France does not shy away from tackling such controversial topics and sheds light on some of the rampant, but oftentimes overlooked issues within LGBT.
The film does not offer closure or even a straightforward answer regarding Marsha’s inexplicable demise. Although France makes it apparent that her baffling death was not a suicide as it was purported in the media, there is still uncertainty regarding the motives behind her murder. Ending on perhaps a bittersweet note, The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson concludes that the black transgender activist was most likely not killed as a result of hate crime or police brutality, but rather was the unfortunate victim of the New York mob who managed the gay bar scene. Nevertheless, the documentary astutely points out how bigotry and apathy affected the investigation of her murder, proving once again that we are a long way from a world where justice prevails.