A Story Beyond Words: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

By Hannah Quinque

Pho­to Cred­it: “No Pride With­out Black Trans Lives” by Janine and Jim Eden

LGBTQ+ Pride is usu­al­ly a cause for cel­e­bra­tion. It is meant to express the joy of being alive and being seen in a soci­ety where an iden­ti­ty that diverges from the norm eas­i­ly leads to exclu­sion, iso­la­tion, and fear. Some­how, it makes sense, then, that the idea of Pride is born from suf­fer­ing, tragedy, and anger, too. The 2017 Net­flix doc­u­men­tary The Death and Life of Mar­sha P. John­son presents a stir­ring tes­ta­ment to a life and death that are uni­ver­sal­ly mean­ing­ful in the strug­gle for LGBTQ+ exis­tence, then and now.

Vic­to­ria Cruz, a trans Lati­na woman and activist work­ing for the Anti-Vio­lence Project in NYC, takes on an impos­si­ble project before retire­ment: an inves­ti­ga­tion into the 1992 death of LGBTQ+ trail­blaz­er Mar­sha P. John­son. Although ruled a sui­cide, it has all the signs of an inves­ti­ga­tion that doesn’t hold up to scruti­ny. The view­er accom­pa­nies Cruz as she res­olute­ly seeks out doc­u­men­tary mate­r­i­al and inter­views with some of Johnson’s acquaintances.

Cruz’ mat­ter-of-fact deter­mi­na­tion to achieve gen­uine jus­tice sets the tone for this pre­sen­ta­tion of many uncom­fort­able truths. While John­son hov­ers as an unde­ni­able pres­ence, it is the voice of her close activist friend Sylvia Rivera (✝2002) who is fea­tured in mem­o­rable and mov­ing clips. While the pre­sen­ta­tion and doc­u­men­tary for­mat may not be rev­o­lu­tion­ary per se, The Death and Life is one of the films where the sub­ject mat­ter alone is worth a thor­ough watch.

Ide­al­ly, the film should be viewed with a crit­i­cal mind. This doc­u­men­tary treats the top­ic of a for­got­ten group of peo­ple and has been accused by artist and activist Tour­ma­line of appro­pri­at­ing and dis­re­gard­ing the work of a trans woman of col­or. Anoth­er moot point is the use of LGBTQ+ ter­mi­nol­o­gy. In the Death and Life, the diverg­ing han­dling of labels and pro­nouns as it has devel­oped from thir­ty years ago to now is not addressed. It cer­tain­ly is pos­si­ble to give the film­mak­ers the ben­e­fit of the doubt and assume that this top­ic was omit­ted delib­er­ate­ly as there’s no con­sen­sus even today on the use of many terms, par­tic­u­lar­ly when indi­vid­u­als choose a label that oth­ers feel is dis­crim­i­nat­ing or out­dat­ed. Thus, it’s nec­es­sary for view­ers to do their own research on these cru­cial ele­ments of LGBTQ+ history.

What makes The Death and Life ulti­mate­ly rel­e­vant is its con­stant refer­ral to the case of 21-year-old Black trans woman Islan Net­tles, who was bru­tal­ly killed in 2013. Trans­gen­der women of col­or are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly at risk of being vio­lent­ly mur­dered sim­ply for being who they are. In the U.S., the Human Rights Cam­paign records ris­ing num­bers for this fatal vio­lence. The Death and Life of Mar­sha P. John­son relates to the deaths and lives that con­tin­ue her sto­ry, in sor­row, but also in pride.

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