The Art Theater in downtown Champaign recently held a showing of the documentary “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” directed by David France. This documentary, originally released on Netflix in 2017, reexamines the death of beloved drag queen and LGBTQ+ icon and activist Marsha P. Johnson.
Marsha P. Johnson was a black transgender woman who, with the help of her friend Sylvia Rivera, formed the first trans-rights organization called S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries). She was known as an outspoken figure in the LGBTQ+ community, notably participating in the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Her activities included performing in drag troupes and modeling under Andy Warhol. She was also a legend in the gay community and an activist for gay liberation and AIDS. She connected with many people as her friends share in the documentary.
“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” follows Victoria Cruz’s journey of investigating Marsha’s death. Victoria Cruz, of the Anti-Violence Project, was a friend of Marsha’s and a fellow activist. Marsha P. Johnson was found dead in the Hudson River on July 6th, 1992. According to the New York Police Department, her death was ruled a suicide. However, friends, family, and other members of the community are not as convinced and still demand answers and justice. Victoria Cruz goes through the events leading up to that day in order to determine whether or not foul play may have had a hand in Marsha’s untimely death.
One of the most unique and interesting ways of honoring Marsha Johnson’s legacy was through the telling of other transgender women’s stories. The documentary not only chronicles Cruz’s investigative efforts but also stories of Sylvia Rivera’s life journey during that time and continuing struggles of transgender women, which is told through archival footage and interviews.
The documentary interweaves moments where we see the protests and outcry regarding the death of Islan Nettles, a black transgender woman who was beaten to death in 2013 by a man who became angry after flirting with Islan, only to discover that she was transgender.
Victoria Cruz meets with members of the gay community during Marsha’s time in order to learn more about who Marsha was and what her life was like in the times leading up to her death. Sylvia Rivera, one of Marsha’s closet friends and co-founder of S.T.A.R was a significant figure in this documentary. Through interviews and old footage, people can learn more about the struggles both Marsha and Sylvia faced as homeless transgender women and their efforts in both the gay liberation movement and the AIDS movement. During that time, both women battled with alcohol abuse and mental illness. We follow the ups and downs of Sylvia’s life before and after Marsha’s death as she continues honoring Marsha’s legacy.
The main aspect of the documentary was Victoria’s ongoing investigation into Marsh’s death. We follow her as she works to collect police documents like Marsha’s autopsy, as well as conducting interviews with Marsha’s friends and family. The audience watches as Victoria follows leads to any possible reasons for Marsha’s death, whether it be an accident, suicide, or murder. She looks at suspects like the mob, law enforcement, and anyone else who may have wanted to harm Marsha.
The documentary masterfully depicts the struggles and battles faced by transgender people from the time of Marsha’s demise to the present day. The audience is taken on this emotional journey, with a provoking musical score and flawless embedment of archival footage, and witness as many demand justice for Marsha and anyone else like her.
“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” is currently available to stream on Netflix.