Marsha Johnson was a veteran of the Stonewall Riots in the summer of 1969, and one of the legendary original members of the new Transgender Rights Movement. 25 years ago, she was found dead in the Hudson River. Her best friend and fellow activist Sylvia Rivera died a few years later, taken by a broken heart.
They are the subjects of a new documentary, The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson by David France, who brought us How to Survive a Plague (2012). That amazing documentary film about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and the radical efforts of ACT UP, was nominated for an Academy Award, multiple Emmy Awards and a Directors Award ward. France’s book of the same name was on the failing NY Times’ Best Books of 2016 list.
The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson uses decades-old interviews and never-before-seen video footage, plus commentary from current transgender activists to comb through the clues in search of justice for Johnson and Rivera, and discover a deeper connection to the movement’s first leaders. The new film follows a new investigation into the mysterious death of Johnson, a courageous African-American transgender activist who also help give birth to the modern Gay Rights Movement.
The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson debuts at The Tribeca Film Festival which takes place April 19 – 30 in Manhattan. Because of record high submissions, the Festival’s curators chose to reduce the size of the overall program by 20%, making this the most selective and focused festival line up in its 16-year history.
This year, the festival will screen feature-films from 28 countries, including 78 World Premieres. 37 filmmakers are making their feature film directorial debuts. Of the 98 films, 32 are directed by women, the most ever for the festival. Tribeca’s 2017 program was chosen from more than 8,700 submissions.
A self-described “street queen”, Johnson was a legendary fixture in NYC’s Greenwich Village gay ghetto. Along with fellow Trans Icon, Rivera, they founded Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.). At the time, the NYPD pegged her death as a suicide, a claim that Johnson’s friends and fellow activists have always firmly rejected.
Johnson was born in 1944 in New Jersey. Her birth name was Malcolm Michaels, Jr. When asked what the “P” stood for, she would say: “It stands for pay it no mind”. She even provided this response when asked by a judge what it meant. He was amused and let her off. It was also a sarcastic response to the frequent question about her gender.
She was well-known enough on the Downtown Scene that Andy Warhol did her portrait for his Ladies And Gentleman series. Although she identified as trans, the Warhol piece was part of a series on famous drag queens. World Of Wonder’s own RuPaul names her as an inspiration and describes Johnson as the true Drag Mother. The pop band Antony And The Johnsons was named in Johnson’s honor, and their self-named 1998 album features a song, River Of Sorrow, inspired by Johnson’s death.
France says that his film is structured like a thriller, with current activist Victoria Cruz playing a detective and audience surrogate. The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson attempts to solve the mystery of her death while celebrating Johnson’s lasting political legacy.