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Who Should Tell Marsha P. Johnson’s Story?

Marsha P. Johnson was a revolutionary gay and trans activist, who was also one of most prominent leaders of the Stonewall uprisings. PHOTO/ ShowClix
Marsha P. Johnson was a revolutionary gay and trans activist, who was also one of most prominent leaders of the Stonewall uprisings. PHOTO/ ShowClix

By Maya Garcia

Published: October 18th, 2017

On Oct 6, Netflix released a new documentary directed by David France titled, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” that highlights the life one of the most important and well-known activists of the gay rights movement. 

The film explores all of Johnson’s accomplishments up until her death in 1992. She was one of the leading activists during the Stonewall riots, a member of the Gay Liberation Front, founder of a homeless center called Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) and a performing artist.

“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” also follows Victoria Cruz on her mission to uncover the true cause of Johnson’s death. Cruz was an LGBTQ activist, a member of the Anti-Violence Project and a friend of Johnson’s. The film shows Cruz as she talks to those who had once known and worked with Johnson to learn more about her life and the suspicions surrounding her death. One scene shows Cruz as she is trying to contact the police, who in the past had deemed Johnson’s death a suicide with little investigation.

Overall, the documentary was important yet very tragic. Having such personal accounts of Johnson’s life and the effect of her death on those who knew her brought her story to life. Featuring never-before-seen footage of Johnson and other queer activists during the Stonewall riots, such as Silvia Rivera, the movie represents Johnson in a fair light by having testimonies from transgender and queer people who had once known and worked with Johnson, while also focusing on issues that still affect the transgender community today. Many are still battling the same problems Johnson and her colleagues brought attention to, and many issues still are often overlooked. These issues include discrimination in the work place, police brutality, exclusion from the LGBT community, being outcast from society, gentrification, becoming victims of violent crime, homelessness or having their work erased.

However, though the documentary was released just last weekend and has received some positive reviews, not everyone is happy. Reina Gossett is a black and transgender filmmaker who first learned about Johnson’s life and her impacts in the early 2000’s on Christopher Street, the same street Johnson once spent her time on. What started as a mission to learn and share information about Johnson quickly turned into a dream to take her story to the big screens. Gossett teamed up with filmmaker Sasha Wortzel to tell Johnson’s story. The two spent endless hours researching, collecting stories and interviewing people while their project was funded through Kickstarter.

After knowing that David France would be able to create a documentary with a larger budget, Gossett and Wortzel decided to turn their documentary into a short narrative film. According to an article from Mother Jones, Kamran Shahraray, who worked as an archival assistant on the project in the summer of 2016, firmly believes that parts of France’s film have even taken work directly from the Vimeo files created by Gossett. “Too often, people with resources who already have a platform become the ones to tell the stories of those at the margins rather than people who themselves belong to these communities,” Gossett wrote in an article in Teen Vogue.

A rich, white, cisgender man was able to tell the story of a transgender black woman simply because he had the money and resources to do so. At the same time, a transgender black woman with the same idea had to borrow money to make rent. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and that can easily be applied here: Gossett’s work and efforts are being overlooked the same way Johnson’s once were. By releasing this film, France is perpetuating the same issues that have always existed for transgender people. While the world needs documentaries about Marsha P. Johnson and other heroes whose stories are unknown, we cannot progress as a society if we continue to silence queer and transgender voices like Gossett’s.

Gossett and Wortzel will still release their film “Happy Birthday, Marsha!” in 2018.

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