In an intimate screening of his newest film The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, held in the private residence of one of the producers, Joy Tomchin, director David France addressed the various controversies surrounding Johnson’s life and death, as well as the allegations made against him by Reina Gossett.
Reina Gossett, a black trans woman like Johnson, is struggling to produce her film about Marsha P. Johnson’s life and mysterious death, and she has taken to Instagram to say how unjust it is that France is able to do what she is being barred from: “David got inspired to make this film from a grant application video that @sashawortzel and I made and sent to Kalamazoo/Arcus Foundation social justice center while he was visiting. He told the people who worked there – I sh/*t you not – that he should be the one to do this film, got a grant from Sundance/Arcus using my language about STAR, got Vimeo to remove my video of Sylvia’s critical ‘Y’all better quiet down’ speech, ripped off decades of my archival research that I experienced so much violence to get, had his staff call Sasha up at work to get our contacts, then hired my and Sasha’s ADVISOR to our Marsha film Kimberly Reed to be his producer.”
France’s account of these events is different. In an interview before the screening, France told BUST that he and Gossett were in touch during production of the film. “When we first talked, she had said she thought of doing a documentary years earlier, but for the previous two years she’s been working on the scripted film. And I said, ‘Well, do you mind if I continue working on my documentary, and you continue working on yours?’ and she thought that it was fine, and she told other people it was fine,” he said.
France contests Gossett’s claim that he used her work and research. He says he initially began his research in ’92, the summer Marsha P. Johnson died, through an assignment for the Village Voice, where he worked at the time. He says he did not finish his research then, but hired a full-time researcher for the film six months before he “even learned about Reina’s work.” He says that he and Gossett “talked initially about if [they] would go forward separately or together,” but due to how different stylistically their pieces were, they decided to work separately and “encouraged one another and that was that.” (BUST has reached out to Gossett regarding France’s account and will update if we hear back.)
France attributes the disputed recollections to hard feelings and media hype, telling BUST, “If you were to guess what happened, you might think it came from all the media that Netflix was able to generate around the launch, and that must have hurt because she still hasn’t finished her film.” He argues that it is not his film that is stopping her in any way, but rather the film community in general not supporting her vision: “She still needs the support, not just of cash but of the community of filmmakers and the institutions that represent those communities, Sundance, the Ford Foundation, these places that brought me in as a young filmmaker…and she hasn’t had that experience yet and she deserves it.” During the Q&A after the screening, others echoed France’s earlier statement, arguing that as long as someone is talking about Marsha P. Johnson’s legacy, things are getting better.
Marsha P. Johnson was referred to as a “veteran of the Stonewall riots” and a “beloved founder of the gay movement” in initial news coverage of her death — but even that is an understatement. Marsha P. Johnson was an icon. A gay icon. A trans icon. A black trans icon who donned red velvet bodysuits and fur coats to hand out roses to neighborhood street kids on a regular basis. Johnson was loud, proud, and memorable, and it is unsurprising that there has been a resurgence of interest in her life. “Darling, I want my gay rights now,” she says in an interview shown in the film, with a smirk of a smile that lights up a room more than 20 years after her death. Alongside her longtime friend Sylvia Rivera, Johnson was an iconic trans activist during the ‘70s and ‘80s in N.Y.C., especially in the Village and “the stroll.” Victoria Cruz, from the Anti-Violence Project in N.Y.C., refers to Johnson as the “Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement,” and feels murdered trans woman are “yelling out from their graves for justice,” which is why her investigation into Johnson’s mysterious death is the center of the film.
The film begins by recounting Marsha P. Johnson’s life and mysterious death: her body was found floating in the Hudson River on July 6, 1992, but her death was never investigated formally by the 6th precinct of the N.Y.P.D. In an audio-recorded interview featured in the film, Johnson tells of the horrors of the 6th precinct, and how they would, in her words, “torture transvestites” — in this way, the film not only focuses on Johnson’s death, but the lack of formal inquiry into it, apparently due to the fact that she was black and trans. The film also follows Sylvia Rivera’s life after Johnson’s death, showing how alcoholism and drug abuse stalled her activism for a time before she got sober and refocused her activism for trans rights. “I will not put up with this shit,” she shouted from the stage of the 1973 Pride parade in N.Y.C., calling out the classism and racism running rampant within the gay community and activism circles. Rivera was booed off the stage in ’73, but that didn’t stop her and Johnson’s exceptional activism; they created STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, which was a safe space and home for trans street kids.
Victoria Cruz’s investigation stopped at the FBI’s doors in Manhattan, so the mystery of Johnson’s death continues. But solving the case wasn’t the initial purpose of the film. Rather, the filmmakers wanted to remind LGBTQ kids everywhere of their history — specifically the oral history of gay rights. During a Q&A, Penny Arcade, longtime LGBTQ performance artist and friend of BUST, stated, “We’re very much dealing with the erasure of history everywhere,” but especially within the gay community because the AIDs epidemic in the ’80s killed an entire generation of gay men and women. Arcade was not a part of the making of the film, but is a longtime friend of France and was a friend of Marsha P. Johnson, through various work within the LGBTQ community, and spoke at the screening.
The mystery of Marsha P. Johnson’s death and the controversy surrounding France’s film remains, and we may never have answers to the questions we all have. How did Marsha P. Johnson die? Why did it take more than 20 years for any true investigation into her death to happen? Did France take Gossett’s work and research? Will Happy Birthday Marsha, Gossett’s film, ever get the funding and recognition it deserves? And, most importantly, will the LGBTQ community, and the world, remember its icons like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera?
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