Marsha P. Johnson or a documentary about friendship

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Netflix's The death and life of Marsha P. Johnson explores the events surrounding the death and possible murder of the trans and veteran activist of Stonewall

Marsha P. Johnson or a documentary about friendship

On the night of June 28, 1969, New York City police entered the Stonewall Inn in a raid to arrest homosexuals and drag queens. The LGBTIQ + community rose, then, against these acts in a spontaneous demonstration that would mark the history of queer activism." The next day the movement started," says Sylvia Rivera in The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. Sylvia and Marsha were friends and activists. Both were veterans of the Stonewall riots and were important figures in the struggle for the rights of the LGBTIQ+ community and in the fight against AIDS. They walked through the New York Greenwich Village in drag, no matter if this represented arrests and boos.

Leer en español: Marsha P. Johnson o un documental sobre la amistad

In the Netflix documentary, we see the activist Victoria Cruz, who works for the anti-violence project in New York, trying to reopen the case of  Marsha's death, one of the two friends, 26 years later. While Victoria shows us scenes of her life and tells us what it was like to be trans in the sixties, she interviews the friends and acquaintances of Marsha P. Johnson and those who were involved in her case. This in order to understand what happened in one of the Hudson River docks in 1992 when Marsha was found drowned on one of its shores.

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A history class about queer activism

The documentary, first of all, is a history class about the movement for the rights of the LGBTIQ + community. In her research work, Victoria must talk to people and people belonging to the movement who would talk about how this was born in New York City and how many of the privileges held now by the community are due, in part, to trans activism.

This kind of history that reminds us of the origins of the movement is also accompanied by a reflection on this struggle. Sylvia Rivera tells about the time she was booed at the gay pride demonstration. She says she had felt betrayed by the movement she had helped found in Stonewall years ago. She was perceived as a stunt and contradicted by her own. The documentary shows how even within the struggle, the trans community is still the most marginal and with the most violated rights. It gives new perspectives on gay activism and reflects on the struggles that it favors and those that do not.

Far from political correctness, the documentary is aware of the gender diversity that can be found in a character such as Marsha. They refer to the person in masculine and sometimes feminine. There is a consciousness of transit, of being many or of being none. The right to this transit between the genders was the flag of Marsha and the documentary pays homage to that.

A documentary about friendship

We see and hear little Marsha P. Johnson on the screen. With the exception of some archive images in which we see her smiling, but not so much talking; Marsha does not appear much in the documentary that is about her life and her death. We know her, perhaps, through the testimony of her friends and sponsors. This documentary builds the character of Marsha through the words of those who knew her. Thus, curiosity grows in the viewer and you feel a desire to know her. There is a rumor, a murmur about Marsha P. Johnson that makes you want to get to know her. This effect is very well achieved, so much that it incites curiosity in the viewer. It is a character that makes you fall in love with her.

Besides being a documentary about queer activism, it is also one about friendship. By constructing the main character through testimonies of friends, the documentary makes a narrative statement in which it gives the word to friends, gives special importance to friendship. It reflects, also, on the friendship between marginal communities and explores how this is different in this specific context. Since in the sixties they arrested the drag queens who were on the street, they, among all, took care of each other; they founded houses where they were received if they had no place to sleep in; they had support groups; Marsha sponsored many young people who had been expelled from their homes. Thus, there is a new sense of community in this vulnerability, different and new care that is based on that friendship between drag queens. To a community that has been denied for decades the right to have a family, this documentary seems to say "take it easy girl, that is what friends are for".

Read also: RuPaul's Drag Race: why is it so influential?


LatinAmerican Post | Juliana Rodriguez

Translated from "Marsha P. Johnson o un documental sobre la amistad"