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even today on the use of many terms, particularly when individuals choose a label that others feel is discriminating or outdated.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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