The Saint of Christopher Street left this world with as much of a bang as she entered it. LGBT rights advocate Marsha P. Johnson died in 1992, yet her death — which was ruled a suicide — is still open and contested. David France’s (“How to Survive the Plague”) documentary gathers stories and archive footage of Marsha and her friends to shed some light on the Stonewall veteran’s mysterious death. “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” tells the untold stories of Johnson, Rivera and Nettles. While the film serves up a stunning portrait of several pioneers for gay and transgender rights, it gets confused whether it is a cold case crime doc or a study of a marginalized community who fought for their rights.
The majority of the documentary follows Victoria Cruz, an LGBT rights activist, transgender woman and friend of Johnson. Cruz tracks down many of the cops on Johnson’s case to get some answers, of which she receives few. For the most part, Johnson’s case is left cold. One redeeming quality of Cruz’s search for the truth is the archive footage of legendary trans-rights activist Sylvia Rivera, Johnson’s friend and fellow Stonewall veteran. Rivera went from homeless to founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, an outspoken activist for transgender rights. Without Rivera, the documentary would be another true crime doc left cold, but she deserves more than a supporting role — she deserves a film of her own.
In addition to Johnson’s case, Rivera’s life and Cruz’s quest for justice, another story is added to the mix, the recent murder trial of transgender woman Islan Nettles. While the film’s title is credited to Marsha P. Johnson, it is scattered and busy with telling too many stories. Much like Rivera, Nettles and even Johnson deserve more of a film than they got. Yet, the documentary does its job in telling the stories that need to be told, an admirable and difficult task.
Mainstreaming the history of the marginalized is no small feat, and hopefully through France’s documentary, activists and pioneers alike will get the respect and credit they deserve. Documentaries have been telling stories of the downtrodden for ages, the question is whether Hollywood can step up to the plate. In a post “Moonlight” world, can Hollywood tell the histories of the LGBT community along with the fictionalized? Past attempts have proven to be either tone deaf (2015’s “Stonewall”) or masterful (2008’s “Milk”).
Perhaps France’s documentary is better viewed as activism than anything else, and in that capacity it succeeds with flying colors. Filmmakers should take note of the difference between film as entertainment and film as activism; while the former leaves audiences satisfied, the latter doesn’t. “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” is activism incarnate, liberating the stories of pioneers in the LGBT rights movement for the world to be inspired by.