Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Much Ado About Marsha

If last week's episode of "Will & Grace 2.0" was a stark reminder of how little today's gay youth know about their history, David France's new documentary -- "The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson," streaming now on Netflix -- may be an even starker reminder how little most LGBT people know about transgender history.

As a just-post-baby-boomer gay, I've always felt I've had an interesting view of LGBT life. I'm old enough to remember or at least be aware of queer details of many 1970s and most '80s movies, TV shows and political events. (I watched "Soap" with my family as a boy, and chatted with Renee Richards at.a tennis tournament in Detroit when I was 11!)  Yet I'm just young enough -- or perhaps prudish enough -- to have escaped the wrath of AIDS, having not had sex until I was nearly 21, which was after the HIV antibody test had been invented and condoms were the safer-sex norm. I also feel incredibly fortunate to have been on the frontline of AIDS activism -- doing volunteer work for San Francisco AIDS Foundation and AIDS Project Los Angeles -- while having only been close to a handful of people who died from the disease. (I never forget that so many people my age or slightly older lost just about every person they knew and loved.)

Sylvia Rivera, left, called Marsha P. Johnson her mother

From my perch, I've long believed certain documentaries should be required viewing for aspiring queers: "The Times of Harvey Milk" would be my vote for political awareness. "The Celluloid Closet" for Hollywood history. "We Were Here" for the HIV/AIDS crisis. And "United in Anger: A History of ACT UP" and/or  "How to Survive a Plague" would be my vote for HIV/AIDS activism -- a model for all activism since. But what I never knew was egregiously missing from my viewing list until it was produced is "The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson," a compelling new look at the T movement. Covering everything from transvestite to transsexual to transgender, France's film succeeds at looking at the past, present and future of trans activism in such a way that even someone involved in LGBT rights for 30 years learned plenty.

For the uninitiated, Marsha P. Johnson was a trailblazing trans activist -- she called herself a transvestite back in the day -- often credited for throwing the first brick that shattered the windows at the Stonewall Inn in 1969. (Or Stonehenge as Will's date refers to it.) She was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and co-founder (along with friend Sylvia Rivera, who is also profiled at length in the film) of the trans advocacy organization known as S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), which created the S.T.A.R. House, a groundbreaking shelter for homeless trans people. Into the '80s and early '90s, Johnson was a prominent AIDS activist, as part of ACT UP. Christopher Street was Marsha's ground zero, and it seems everyone who ever came in contact with Marsha adored her.

With Victoria Cruz at the premiere party at the Stonewall Inn

What the film does so well is effortlessly weaving the history of Marsha, Sylvia and other trans pioneers with a Who Done It? of how Marsha died (her body mysteriously turned up in the Hudson River in 1992, at age 46) all through the eyes of a (transwoman of color) peer of these women, Victoria Cruz, as she pounds the pavement looking for clues while also keeping an eye on current cases involving violence against trans women. (How little things have change will deeply depress you.)

Don't want to spoil anything and would encourage each of you to watch the film and draw your own conclusions. But I don't think it will ruin anything to tell you how sad I was at how little seemed to have been done to investigate Marsha's death. (Especially the information shared by the late Rodger McFarlane.) As Matt Foreman, former director of Anti-Violence Project, says of Johnson’s death: “In any other community had a similar hero been found dead under unclear circumstances, it seems self-evident that the city would have put resources, real resources behind it to try to figure out what happened.” And that my jaw was on the floor at one point watching archival footage of Sylvia interacting with a mostly gay white male crowd, which filled me with outrage and shame for our collective history.

"The Death of Life of Marsha P. Johnson" isn't a perfect film. France has been faulted for overly sanitizing its principals' lives -- mental illness, HIV, drug abuse and prostitution are nowhere to be found -- and I tend to agree that these details were relevant. (When someone's death is ruled a suicide, isn't a prior diagnosis of schizophrenia germane? Why did the man who made an Oscar-nominated documentary about the AIDS epidemic omit this woman's own struggle with the disease, especially when said film was criticized for only focusing on gay white men?) And he has had to respond to allegations that he appropriated his idea and research from Reina Gossett, a transwoman of color activist and filmmaker. (France denies the claim, saying he was a friend of Marsha's and first took an interest in her death as a reporter at the Village Voice.). But none of this takes away from the importance of having all of this trans history respectfully put together in one place -- a place that eschews talking heads on couches telling us about Johnson and Rivera in favor of letting these two remarkable people tell us about themselves.

The director responds to omissions from his film.

And below find the back-and-forth about about Reina Gossett's allegations of theft:

From HERE.

A statement from David France, director and producer of "The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson":

In 1992, the year that activist Marsha P. Johnson was killed, I was writing for the Village Voice covering AIDS and the general LGBTQ beat in New York City. Marsha had been a friend of mine, and her story fell to me to report. I started investigating right away, but with no active leads and the exploding AIDS crisis in New York, I let the story slip away. For years, my decision has haunted me.

 When making my first feature, How To Survive A Plague, I kept a “Projects Board” of other stories I wanted to explore in future work. Marsha’s story was always the most prominent, because I felt a duty to investigate her death the way I had not been able to in 1992.

 Reina Gossett has suggested that I’ve stolen both the concept and footage for The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson from her work, the experimental short narrative Happy Birthday, Marsha. I owe a debt to those who have kept Marsha’s story alive over the years. My creative work builds on theirs. But it is it’s own scholarship. My research team and I spoke with every friend and associate of Marsha and Sylvia Rivera’s that we could reach, and poured through a vast archive to arrive at our film, aided immeasurably by the Anti Violence Project, whose story is at the center of my film. We sourced, digitized, and licensed the archival footage. Our intention was always to have archival footage allow for Marsha and Sylvia to tell their stories in their own voices. Nothing in the film’s concept, research or execution came from anyone outside of this process or our immediate team.

 I found out about the existence of Gossett’s film years after I had started research for my film. I reached out to her to see about sharing resources, at which point she informed me she was working on a scripted short film about Marsha and Sylvia in the hours leading up to Stonewall, which is not at all the focus of my film. These stories seemed different enough to me that there was no cause for concern — they were both about Marsha and Sylvia, but Marsha and Sylvia are two of the most important people in the history of the LGBTQ rights movement, and there have been many films already made about them (including Arthur Dong’s 1995’s PBS documentary The Question of Equality, where I first witnessed Sylvia’s firebrand speech at the 1973 Gay Power rally). It seemed there was room in the landscape for both films with very different stories, methods and approaches. As part of a sincere desire to see their film completed, I connected Gossett, her co-director Sasha Wortzel, and their producers with our funder.

 I admire Reina Gossett and look forward to her beautiful film. Alone among researchers, she has dedicated her work to the legacy of Marsha and early trans activism. Yet in terms of funding and support, I witnessed the obstacles she faces as an artist who is also a transgender woman of color, obstacles that have been far less onerous for me in pursuit of my craft. Racism and transphobia are hideous cancers. By joining my voice to the campaign for Marsha’s justice, I hoped to amplify that call, not complicate it, and to bring whatever attention I could draw to this history and those who defend it. But I have complicated it nonetheless. I know that history-telling is not a zero sum equation. But funding and cultural power can be. It is wrong that our projects have not received equal attention. I re-double my commitment to bringing Happy Birthday, Marsha the attention and backing it needs and deserves, and hope that you will too.

From HERE.

I don't have all the facts to be able to have an opinion about Gossett's claims. But other people do not seem to need more information, leading me to believe the only way David France can make this "right" in some people's eyes is for him to single-handedly undo centuries of racial discrimination and change the way Hollywood works. I'm not expecting him to succeed on either front. 


I've reached out to Reina Gossett to ask her what she would like to see happen going forward but have not received a reply.

I concur with Peter and Fred. 

Here's the trailer for "Happy Birthday, Marsha." the film by Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel about Marsha Johnson's life in the hours before she ignited the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. It is a dramatic re-enactment that seems to have little in common with France's film. 

Also of interest:

Here is Richard Morrison (writer) and Michael Kasino (director)'s 2012 documentary, "Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson."

UPDATE: Reina Gossett owes David France an apology for her now-discredited allegations


JimmyD said...

The film is not perfect... but what film is?
It was wonderful seeing Marsha again. I'd see her daily during the last few years of her life.
"Got some spare change for a starving actress?"
Always, for you, Marsha!

As for Trans in the arts? Check out 'Charm' at the Lortel. Inspired by Chicago Trans activist, Miss Gloria Allen. Not brilliant, but very interesting.

James McD said...

I'd add to the list of essentials HBO's version of Angels in America.

I've been making the same observation about younger guys for a few years. Recently, I was at an event in Austin, and a younger guy kinda mentioned something about older gays not coming to stuff. I looked at him and said, "They're not here because they're dead."

jaragon said...

To your list of films that should be watched by the younger gay generation I would add two:
"Word is Out"(1977) and "Improper Conduct"(1984) about the persecution of homosexuals by the Cuban goverment

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