‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’ Celebrates the Black Trans Revolutionary’s Activism and Tries to Solve the Mystery of Her Death

By catherine lizette gonzalez Oct 06, 2017

For many people, Marsha P. Johnson is revered as the Rosa Parks of the LGBT Movement. Johnson famously led in the 1969 Stonewall rebellion against anti-trans and -gay police harrassment, raids and violence, igniting the queer and trans liberation movement at large. Alongside her best friend, Sylvia Rivera, she co-founded the first ever transgender advocacy organization, which they named Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. And with very limited resources, they converted an old rundown building in Manhattan into a safe home for trans and gender non-conforming people.

When Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River in 1992, the New York City Police Department ruled her death as a suicide. But for the last 25 years, her close friends and allies have disputed this investigation. Now, director David France ("How to Survive A Plague") revisits Johnon’s tragic death and her remarkable life in the new documentary, "The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson."

In the film, Johnson’s friend and fellow activist Victoria Cruz delves into the case, interviewing detectives and people with leads, and examining rare, archival footage. Cruz, who is a retired crime victim advocate at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, reveals how Johnson’s case speaks to the injustice and rampant violence trans women—especially trans women of color—continue to face in contemporary society.

"[In 2017] there have been 21 murders of gender non-conforming people, and 18 of those people were trans women of color," Cruz tells Colorlines. "It seems like nothing has changed."

Along with Johnson’s investigation, the film also chronicles protests and legal proceedings following the 2013 murder of Islan Nettles, a Black trans woman fatally beaten by a cisgender man who flirted with her and then claimed that she had "fooled" him into it. The film examines how, for many trans victims of hate crimes, their cases turn cold, or the judicial system often weighs in favor of perpetrators. "There is still bias, and there is still racial animus that needs to be addressed," director France tells Colorlines.

The story of Marsha P. Johnson presents us with the history of how trans women of color revolutionized our everyday lives and culture through their fight for dignity and justice. Yet, anti-trans and racist bias continues to deprive many trans women of color from accessing basic necessities like housing, healthcare and employment. And they are still disproportionately targeted by fatal hate crimes. "We were the vanguards of this movement. Without trans people acting up, there would be no Stonewall," says Cruz. "We’ve won many battles but the war keeps on."

"The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson" is now available to stream on Netflix.