The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson


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Release Date: April 21, 2017 – Tribeca Film Festival
Runtime: 105 minutes
Rating: Not Rated
Studio: Public Square Films
Director: David France
Cast: Victoria Cruz; Marsha P. Johnson; Sylvia Rivera

Here is a documentary that should be required viewing in high schools, in gender studies classes, and in history classes from now on. “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” is an important and indispensable piece of work about one of the foremost founders of the modern LGBT movement.

Adopting the structure of a cracker-jack mystery-thriller right from the get-go, the film essentially follows the extraordinary efforts of one Victoria Cruz, an about-to-retire caseworker from the Anti-Violence Project in New York City. Before she retires, however, Cruz would like to bring closure to a decades-old cold case: the mysterious events surrounding the death of LGBT pioneer Marsha P. Johnson. Johnson (born Malcolm Michaels), along with fellow activist and confidante, Sylvia Rivera, whose story is also profiled, became famous simply for having the audacity to be themselves at a time when being oneself was fundamentally unsafe. In 1960s NYC, Marsha was there for the birth of the LGBT movement at the Stonewall Inn and became a fixture in the trans community thereafter as an almost universal den mother to those whom the world had thrown away simply because they were trans. David France’s absorbing documentary interweaves spectacular archival footage from a bygone New York City and of Johnson with Ms. Cruz’s dogged hunt for what happened to the eponymous icon.

I know most documentaries include footage from whatever time period or subject they are examining, but what Mr. France has included herein is simply mind-blowing. There is footage from inside the Stonewall Inn before the raids and scenes from the old Christopher Street piers where the gay community once congregated under the cover of darkness, not by choice but by necessity. Nowadays, in a world where gay marriage is legal and the LGBT community has attained an almost mainstream acceptance, it is crucial that younger generations view this footage as a reminder of the hardships their brothers and sisters had to endure to gain the current freedoms they enjoy.

In Victoria Cruz, we are given one of the best and most accessible sleuths – fictional or otherwise – the screen has seen in a long time. She is instantly likeable and relatable and immediately involves the viewer in her quest to find justice for Marsha. Armed with her walking stick and her gritty perseverance in the face of injustice, Ms. Cruz is a force to be reckoned with and the type of person you want on your side.

Marsha P. Johnson’s story is an essential piece of LGBT history and “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” is required viewing not only for those who identify as LGBT, but for anyone who has ever felt marginalized and in need of strength to find justice for all.

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