Despite having been overshadowed in official accounts and whitewashed out of Hollywood productions, Marsha P. Johnson’s achievements as an early leader of the LGBTQ civil rights struggle have become more and more celebrated in recent years. From her important role in the 1969 Stonewall riot–an event that many consider the beginning of the struggle for LGBTQ rights–to her formation, with Sylvia Rivera, of the first trans rights organization, Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR), Johnson was a critical figure at the start of our struggle for liberation.
Yet this stands in stark contrast to the circumstances of her death. Found dead in the Hudson River in 1992, Johnson’s death was quickly written off as a suicide by the NYPD, who proceeded to sweep it under the rug despite a clamor from the LGBTQ activist world. However, 25 years later, Johnson’s fellow trans activist and friend Victoria Cruz, now working at New York’s Anti-Violence Project, decided to do some digging and see what she could learn today about how Johnson came to such an untimely end.
Her search is chronicled in a new documentary, The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson, which premieres on Netflix today. The film is directed by David France, who is best known for his 2012 film How To Survive A Plague, which chronicled the efforts of ACT UP and Treatment Action Group to bring attention to the threat of AIDS. The film won an Independent Spirit award and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.
France regards Johnson’s death as being a failure of the LGBTQ community, and of society as a whole. “In a really fundamental way, we’re all responsible for the death of Marsha P. Johnson,” he told Vanity Fair. “The community itself is responsible for not having created a safe space and a veneration for somebody as important as her. I think every systemic flaw allowed this to happen. And it continues to happen. We continue to have a society in which to be a transgender woman of color is to be in incredible danger.”
At a time when LGBTQ rights, and particularly transgender rights, are under attack by a government openly hostile to our community, it is more essential than ever to remember Marsha P. Johnson, to tell her story, and to find her whatever measure of justice she can be afforded at this late date. “This story has to be told,” Cruz said to Vanity Fair. “It’s a labor of love. And I knew Marsha.”
Get to know Marsha, the world she came from, and the present-day attempt to learn the truth about her death, over at Netflix this weekend. Watch the trailer below, and see the entire film at netflix.com/marshapjohnson.