The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson was many things: outspoken LGBT activist, downtown superstar, model muse to Andy Warhol. What she never was, her friends and family agree, was suicidal. And yet that’s how the police classified her death when she was found floating in New York’s Hudson River on July 6, 1992. David France’s finely wrought documentary (streaming currently on Netflix) seeks justice for a pivotal figure in queer history from Stonewall on, and a sort of loving resurrection. But the movie is also a vivid portrait of a vanished New York: A grimy, dangerous, riotously colorful place populated by indelible characters like Johnson’s fellow trans trailblazers Sylvia Rivera and Victoria Cruz, both of whom feature heavily.

If anything, France (2012’s Oscar-nominated How to Survive a Plague) brings too much scope to his storytelling; as engaging as these surrounding players are, you long for more moments with the movie’s fascinating subject (seen mostly intermittently, in vintage clips and home videos). A fixture on New York’s queer scene whose friends dubbed her alternately the mayor and the queen of the West Village, Johnson, born Malcolm Michaels in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1945, wasn’t hard to see coming—her John-Waters-meets-Steel-Magnolia style, wild headpieces and mile-wide smile were both personal expression sort of living performance art.

The movie methodically explores who might have had cause to kill her: the local mafia, who were heavily involved in then-still-underground gay bar scene? A violent john or a passing group of straight men bent on hate crime? Death is what leads the title and drives the movie. But it’s her life — vibrant, pioneering, and much too short — that gives Marsha its flamboyant, beautiful heart. A–

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
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