In 'The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,' filmmaker David France illuminates the story of trans heroes ignored for far too long.
Sylvia Rivera (L) and Marsha P. Johnson, in a photo by Diana Davies.
When Marsha P. Johnson's body was found floating in the Hudson river on July 6th, 1992, the LGBTQ community lost an icon. The African American drag queen and activist had been at the vanguard of the Stonewall riots, the event that kickstarted the modern wave of gay liberation. Alongside her close friend and fellow activist Sylvia Rivera, she co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), an organization dedicated to providing resources for homeless queer youth. And by the time of her death, she was heavily involved with queer activist group ACT UP, making AIDS advocacy a key part of her life.
Yet her legacy has often been obscured, if not outright besmirched. As witnessed in The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, the latest documentary from David France (who previously directed How to Survive a Plague), Johnson and Rivera were being openly heckled and pushed out of the movement they had helped found as early as 1973. Images of an angry crowd booing Rivera at that year's Gay Pride March at Washington Square Park only makes France's documentary, which elevates the invaluable contributions of trans women of color to the LGBTQ community to their proper standing, all the more necessary. And it traces their impact through to today by portraying modern activists like Victoria Cruz, whom the film follows as she chases down new details about Johnson's death.
Ahead of the film's release on Netflix today, VICE caught up with France to talk about his desire to tell stories about LGBTQ heroes, the Herculean task of organizing the film's immense amount of archival footage, and what he hopes new generations will take away from the story of Marsha's death and life.
VICE: When did you first become interested in Marsha's story?
David France: I actually started researching Marsha's death back in 1992. I was working as an investigative reporter for The Village Voice; I never concluded my investigation, so it's always been one of those pieces of unfinished business for me. After finishing my first documentary, How to Survive a Plague, I started thinking about what other iconic stories of LGBTQ activism I could tell. I was drawn immediately back to her legacy. And also to the story of what might have happened to her. I mean, everybody in queer New York in the 80s and 90s knew Marsha; in the 70s and 60s too, for that matter. She was a permanent fixture on Christopher Street, which was, at the time, the mountaintop of gay life in the world. If you spent any time walking up and down the street, you knew Marsha. And if you spent enough time there she knew you. So Marsha and I did know each other.
When she died, it was shocking to everybody. She was, at the time, quite a well-known AIDS activist. So her death touched on many aspects of the community in New York and around the world. I felt a very personal obligation to try and bring justice to Marsha and at the same time to excavate her historical significance for a new generation of people interested in social justice movements.
The film isn't just about Marsha. We get to hear about Sylvia Rivera, about Victoria Cruz, and about Islan Nettles—other trans people whose stories and activism have impacted the trans rights movement. What drove you to interweave these stories with Marsha's own?
Marsha's story really can't be told without telling Sylvia Rivera's story. They were political partners, comrades. They were best friends. They were mother and daughter.
Marsha acted as Sylvia's trans mother. They met when Sylvia was very young—11 or 12 years old. She was new to the streets and one of the first queens she met was Marsha, who was 19 at the time. Marsha protected her on the street. They were both working the stroll, working the sex industry on 42nd street. She was there when Sylvia took her new name, and she ushered Sylvia into adulthood.
The two of them together were kind of partners on the street but then played this arm-in-arm pivotal role in Stonewall. And beyond. By that I mean when the ashes were cooling after the Stonewall rebellion, a very small group of people—a dozen people, perhaps—started meeting on a regular basis and formed the Gay Liberation Front, which is the first of the modern LGBTQ rights organizations, two of them were Sylvia and Marsha. Very few people understood the real central role that two trans women of color played in building the modern LGBTQ rights movement. So you can't really tell one story without the other.
And you really get to see so much of both of them in the film.
I wanted them to be able to tell their own stories. So we did a really deep dive into the archives. It took two years to find enough footage to allow them to narrate their own stories. I didn't want talking heads to sit in front of a camera and tell us who they were and what they felt. I wanted to watch them thinking and feeling those things, and get their story from them.
Can you talk a bit more about the research process?
It wasn't easy, I'll tell you that. Although Sylvia and Marsha appear in many people's amateur footage, they were never really indexed. They were often called "transvestites" or "drag queens" or "Village creatures" in archives—kind of stripped of their identities by people who may not have known them personally and didn't understand their historical significance. That meant we had to really dig through an enormous haystack of unrelated footage from that time, hoping that the camera would swing to the left and capture our heroines. Often they did.
I had a great team working with me on this with me, headed by Mark Blane, who was my co-writer on the project. We did some "hand-to-hand research," I would call it. We found, for example, a sign-up list at the New York Public Library for a 1973 conference of gay video artists. And because the time was right and it was very early use of video in 1973, we assumed that these would be people who would be centrally involved in the community. And if they were centrally involved in the community, they might know Sylvia and Marsha. We just ticked down that list until we found one person who had a huge quantity of footage. In that quantity was remarkable footage of both Sylvia and of Marsha. That constituted a great find for the historical record. It was hard work, but the rewards were amazing.
Where does Victoria's story come into the picture?
Well, when I was doing my reporting for The Village Voice in 1992, I was working closely with the New York City Anti-Violence Project, because they were a very aggressive activist organization advocating for the rights of LGBTQ crime victims at a time when the police department wasn't really paying attention. So I returned there in 2015. I called them up and asked for all the people I knew back then. Of course they're all gone. It was a brand new staff. I said I'd like to go and look at the files that you might have pulled together back then. They said, "In order to do that you'll have to work with Victoria Cruz"—I didn't know Victoria. And she had her own ideas about going back to that old case, as she says in the film, because of its significance today—because of the unchecked crime wave against trans women of color.
She had an idea that if we let a case like Marsha's go unanswered and just drift off into the world of cold cases, how could we exercise any sort of political pressure to bring justice to the cases of the poor, very young women who are being assaulted today? And she turned out to be a remarkable figure. Her backstory was tremendous—I didn't know it at the time. And her personal connection to this history was unknown to me. It was really just the luck of the draw that brought us together. We used to joke that she was kind of a spiritual Murder She Wrote character—a Jessica Fletcher for the times. And she really is! She's indefatigable. She is a woman of incredible passion and compassion. But what she was helping me understand and helps the viewer understand, is that Marsha's death, whoever caused it, was really the result of this terrible unfinished business that we have as a culture in relationship to our transgender brothers and sisters. That is still going on today. What she was discovering about Marsha's life and death only drove her further into the cases that are unfolding today in the courts. That's always been something that she's advocated for.
What do you hope audiences in 2017 take away from this film?
I want people to see the heroes in my community. And to see them as American figures, as human figures. As people whose actions and contributions have profoundly changed social and civic and political life today—for everybody! What Marsha and Sylvia did together was to actually conceive and launch a revolution in how we think about gender and gender identity. If it weren't for them, we would not be engaged in this cultural dialogue we are today about transgender rights. They did that. And they did that as outsiders, people without political training, who had been dismissed by society at large and even dismissed by their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. And yet they persisted against this opposition to become these remarkable historical figures. They became who they were meant to be.
Interview has been condensed and edited.