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The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) - Plot Summary Poster

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Summaries

  • Victoria Cruz investigates the mysterious 1992 death of black gay rights activist and Stonewall veteran, Marsha P. Johnson. Using archival interviews with Johnson, and new interviews with Johnson's family, friends and fellow activists.

  • When Stonewall Veteran and beloved Greenwich Village personality Marsha P Johnson turned up dead shortly after Gay Pride in 1992, it was the latest in a series of murders, gay bashings, and "mysterious" deaths in the local gay community. Johnson is seen in footage at a political march shortly before this, at an action trying to draw attention to these hate crimes. Tragically, Johnson then becomes the next victim. Like the other suspicious deaths, Johnson's death is quickly dismissed as a "suicide", even though there is no evidence that Johnson was suicidal, and significant evidence that Johnson was harassed and stalked on that very night. Demonstrations are held to protest the lack of police investigation, but it is not until decades later that transgender crime advocate Victoria Cruz succeeds in getting some answers. Even after decades, many contemporaries of Johnson are still afraid to discuss on the record what happened to Johnson, the murders that took place in the Village in that era, the danger that follows many of the most marginalized in the community, and the threats that some still fear. Like the previous documentary on Marsha P Johnson, Pay it No Mind, this film relies on archival footage of the dead, letting the subjects speak for themselves. Footage of Johnson at political actions is included, though some might not notice Johnson at first at some of these actions and memorials, dressed down in jeans and a t-shirt, or jeans and a flannel shirt, with no wig. Stonewall veterans, AIDS activists, and early gender nonconforming and transgender activists are shown at these demonstrations, as well. The Gay Liberation Rally, where Sylvia Rivera gives the fiery "You Listen Up!" speech is also featured, along with with other interviews with Rivera and AIDS memorials with ACT UP and Gay Men's Health Crisis.


Spoilers

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Synopsis

  • Marsha P Johnson greets us at the docks where Christopher Street meets the Hudson River. A passerby recognizes Marsha, and remarks how everyone knows Marsha, how Marsha fearlessly dresses in drag, or not, as a woman or a man, as it pleases Marsha. The passerby admires Johnson's courage and freedom to be authentic, open and spontaneous. Then we discover Marsha, locally famous but living in poverty, struggling with mental illness, who has fought for the rights of gay, lesbian, and gender nonconforming people ever since the Stonewall Rebellion, has been murdered. The police blithely dismiss it as a suicide, close the case and move on.

    The Village is in an uproar. A people's memorial begins. A protest march is held. Marchers in the streets demand justice - for Marsha and the others who are being murdered in the LGBT community, who Marsha was also marching for. It seems justice is nowhere to be found.

    Twenty five years later, enter Victoria Cruz. Tirelessly working for justice for murdered trans women, Victoria meets with Marsha P Johnson's family, friends and fellow activists, and advocates to get this cold case reopened. Cruz interviews retired cops, and those who were the last to see Marsha alive. We learn of Mafia threats, dirty cops, internal rivalries in the many communities Marsha was known in, and the fear many of Johnson's friends still live with today.

    We backtrack to the years when Johnson was still alive. We see Johnson and close friend Sylvia Rivera as activists, at the first Christopher Street Liberation Rally, and other early Gay Rights actions in New York City. Some of this footage is either rare, or in longer, fuller form than has been seen before. Many interviews with contemporaries are new.

    Justice is still elusive. We feel the frustration and fatigue of this struggle, and the toll it has taken on those who have survived. We walk the streets with Marsha, and with Victoria, and try to piece together what happened, in honor of the dead, and the living.

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