Even in persecuted communities, there are hierarchies of marginalization, and “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” argues that, with regards to the LGBT movement of the past few decades, the most ostracized and demonized faction continues to be transgender people. Driven by both empathy and a passion for justice, “How to Survive a Plague” director David France’s stellar documentary charts an investigation into the still-unsolved death of trans icon Marsha P. Johnson, along the way illuminating the persistent discrimination that exists today, and the bonds of community designed to counter it. Deriving additional emotional power from its formal beauty, it should be one of the signature breakouts from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
A veteran of the Stonewall riots and a fixture of New York’s Greenwich Village gay scene, Marsha P. Johnson (“The Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement”) was a friendly, vivacious transvestite beloved by virtually everyone with whom she came into contact. Her life ended suddenly and tragically in early July 1992, when her body was found in the Hudson river off the Christopher St. pier, sparking public memorials and marches, as well as outrage at the fact that the New York Police Department’s sixth precinct was quick to deem it a suicide, and to avoid any deeper inquiry. The loss of Johnson — who said her middle initial stood for “Pay no mind” — was a particularly devastating blow to those closest to her, including roommate Randy Wicker and partner-in-activism Sylvia Rivera, with whom she started Star (Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries).
France’s film recounts this backstory via the present-day investigation of Anti-Violence Project activist Victoria Cruz, who on the eve of her retirement, embarks on a quest to figure out what truly happened to Johnson. “They’re yelling out from their graves for justice,” Cruz says as an explanation for why she’s set out on this lifelong mission to protect the victimized. It’s a motivation that clearly also inspires “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” which, like France’s prior work, is both a celebration of the courage shown by many in the LGBT community in the face of calamitous oppression and neglect, as well as a memorial for those who were lost in those fights for equality and basic human decency.
Cruz’s sleuthing puts her into contact with numerous people who knew Johnson well, collecting along the way video footage, photographs, anecdotes and clues. Together, they soon come to suggest that Johnson — who everyone agrees could not have deliberately taken her own life — might have been the victim of violent cops, or “four guidos” who were seen patrolling the prostitution strip that Johnson frequented, or even perhaps the mob, who controlled the New York gay-bar scene, and whom Wicker had angered by trying to force them out. That there are no concrete answers to be found here is yet another unhappy note in a tale rife with sorrow. And it epitomizes the terrible fate faced by so many transg people: harassed, scorned, abused, and then thrown away, their lives treated as if they never mattered in the first place.
“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” further hammers home that notion by citing the 2016 homicide of Islan Nettles, whose killer James Dixon — claiming he committed the act in a “blind fury” after discovering Nettles was trans — received only 12 years for his crime. It’s a stirring reminder that the present, no matter its progress, hasn’t fully let go of the past’s attitudes and judgments. And it serves to legitimize Cruz’s dedication to pursuing the truth about Johnson — a quest that France depicts through a beautifully constructed collage of old and new non-fiction elements, and scores with urgent, piercing strings that enhance the material’s pressing momentum.
If often a distressing portrait of trans subjugation, France’s documentary also finds hope in the resilience of Rivera, a firebrand activist who was shunned by many of her queer brothers and sisters in the ’70s, wound up living on the streets in the ’90s beside the spot where Johnson was found, and was ultimately saved — and found redemption — through the love and support of her friends. In her story, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” presents a portrait of the rough road that so many trans people have been forced to travel, as well as a possible blueprint for a more triumphant way forward.