David France’s Oscar-nominated “How to Survive a Plague” was a mesmerizing look at AIDS activism in the eighties and nineties, reconstructed with bountiful archival footage; France’s followup, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” is a kind of thematic sequel, this time focusing on trans activism during the same time period. Both movies grapple with the reverberations of these dramatic efforts in the present moment, but “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” is particularly suspenseful for the way it recollects the past through the prism of a murder mystery, brilliantly fusing an archival history with the elements of a detective story.
Whereas “Plague” explored the efforts of ACT UP and other institutions to combat the AIDS epidemic, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” focuses on Greenwich Village “street queen” Johnson, a Stonewall riots hero who died under mysterious circumstances in 1992 when she was found floating in the Hudson River. The police ruled it a suicide; her peers weren’t so sure, and the particulars of the case remain unsolved.
France frames this story around the efforts of Victoria Cruz, a trenchant investigator for the NYC Anti-Violence Project, an LGBTQ organization committed to finding justice for members of its community that have been victims of violent attacks. Herself a trans woman who survived sexual assault in the nineties, Cruz provides the movie with a crucial modern-day framing device, and she’s a formidable presence: A heavy, wrinkled figure who moves at a deliberate pace but never slows down, she’s a contemporary embodiment of Johnson’s determination lurching into the present.
As Cruz ventures around town talking to Johnson’s old friends, France resurrects the late character with grainy, intimate video from her heyday. With the serious-minded Sylvia Rivera, Johnson co-founded the Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries, at a time when many trans people were ostracized by a gay community more keen on integration than otherness. Mesmerizing scenes from rallies show Rivera and Johnson’s defiance in the face of crowds uncertain how to respond to their boisterous personalities; later, more solemn interviews with Rivera (who died of liver cancer in 2002) and their peers show the extent to which Johnson’s fate illustrated a broader sense of alienation for the struggles of trans people that continued through the decades. Footage from two years after Johnson’s death reveals Rivera living in a tent adjacent to where her friend died, still obsessed with the case and the way it symbolized their neglected world.
Meanwhile, Cruz’s investigation hits a series of dead-ends, but that only enhances the movie’s startling call to action. Police officers avoid her, and interviews with former Johnson colleagues only provide the slightest hints of possibilities. Johnson’s paranoia surrounding her relationship to the mob, which owned much of the gay bar scene in the nineties, leads down a remarkable pathway of unnerving possibilities.
With time, however, it’s clear that Cruz isn’t any closer to solving the case so much as revealing how much of it has gone unexplored. As a result, the movie’s ambitious structure starts to show its seams around the halfway mark. The meandering investigation drags in parts, and the mysterious soundtrack overplays the genre component, as if France were hoping to transform Johnson’s story into the mold of a true crime thriller along the lines of “Making a Murderer.”
Instead, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” is most effective as a wakeup call, with Cruz resurrecting Johnson’s spirit to continue her quest. At City Hall, Cruz finds constant cases of violence against trans people receiving virtually no attention, and the injustice is particularly resonant in the wake of gay marriage legalization. Once again, a community content with one overarching victory seems to have turned a blind eye toward the most underserved facet of its world.
“They’re yelling out from their graves for justice,” one person tells Cruz, but France’s movie represents a powerful step towards hearing them out. By communing with a troubled past, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” shows just how much it lives with us today.
“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.