About five years ago I watched my first episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race and became instantly obsessed with Drag culture. I think the artistry of what female impersonators do is so creative and societally aware in a way that really pushes boundaries while being extremely entertaining. Keen to understand the origins of the culture, I watched Paris is Burning several times. On the most recent viewing Netflix recommended The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson to me. I knew who Marsha was because she is discussed on Drag Race in connection with the Stonewall Riots, which is where the gay liberation movement started.
In 1992 Marsha P. Johnson, a drag queen a one of the major figureheads of the gay liberation movement was found floating in the Hudson River. Her death was ruled as a suicide but many members of the community felt that foul play was involved and that the police failed to investigate fully.
On the eve of her retirement Anti-Violence Project worker, Victoria Cruz decides to launch her own investigation into Marsha’s death and find out what the police might have missed.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson takes a look back into the origins of the Gay Liberation movement and the place of drag queens and transgender people within it. It explores the prejudices of the gay community against the transgender community, mafia connections, dirty cops and how little has changed. Victoria interviews Marsha’s friends and family, in particular her close friend Sylvia Riviera, to explore Marsha’s mental state, who she was and who she might have been involved with. She also reviews case files and autopsy reports to try to understand if some evidence was missed.
In some ways this is a great documentary about the fight for Gay rights and how society has historically rejected and excluded transgender people. But…. while it is abundantly obvious that the police did not care about Marsha or about many other people who were attacked or murdered because of their sexuality and gender identification, no real evidence ever emerges of foul play. The case was certainly closed without adequate investigation and there is caginess around Victoria’s interest in the case but there is no smoking gun.
Ultimately it feels somewhat unsatisfactory and by focusing on Marsha’s death some of her life is diminished. Martha is absolutely worthy of a documentary. I am just not sure this one was worthy of her.