Director David France on ‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’

I was invited to a screening for the new Netflix doc The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson and a moderated chat with Director David France. Read a few highlights of the chat below:

On the vision for the film:

Well I knew from the start that I wanted to tell the story of both [Marsha and Sylvia Rivera]. The question always was, for me, who are they together, what do they mean to one another, and what did they mean historically as a team. What I learned in the archival footage—was that, apart from the powerful team that they created politically, it was really a love story and Sylvia really loved Marsha. Every piece of footage that we looked at after Marsha’s death, Sylvia was referencing Marsha. We never saw a piece of footage or photograph of her after Marsha’s death without her wearing that pin. And that love, I think, was a key really to what allowed Sylvia, in the end, to become sober and kind of achieve the political standing that she always was reaching for in her life. That’s why I structured it this way. That’s why I called it [The} Death and Life of Marsha [P. Johnson] because really it was through Marsha’s presence and her legacy that Sylvia was able to climb forward and become the Sylvia Rivera of legend.


On Victoria Cruz’s involvement in the film:

I was at the Village Voice in 1992 as an investigative reporter when Marsha died and I was asked to investigate her death then and, although I never did write and finish my work and write the piece, I knew that the Anti Violence Project was conducting an intensive amount of original investigative legwork in the case and trying to bring that to the New York City police department with very little success. So I returned to them when I thought about making the documentary about Marsha.—They were interested in the old care and they said in fact that I should talk to Victoria Cruz, whom I hadn’t known, and that she had a personal interest as well in seeing about bringing justice to Marsha and she had been ending – as she says – coming to the end of her career and we grabbed her just in time and dovetailed our interests with hers.


On Randy Wicker:

Randy Wicker has been a journalist covering the LGBT community and movement since probably the mid 60’s. He is such a figure. Also, a very prominent contributor to the movement over the years but he was a print journalist and an early, early video journalist and his collection you [see] in his apartment—everything in his apartments is of irreplaceable historical significance and if anything happens to that building before Randy settles on the ultimate destination for his political collect, we will all lose out. He allowed us to go in over and over and over—and we digitized scores, if not hundreds of hours of Randy Wicker tapes to find the story of Marsha and the story of Sylvia. He was friendly with both and at one time or another employed both of them. So he, more than anybody, had that kind of intimate access.


On the roles race and class play in the trans murder epidemic:

At one point in the film, Sylvia plants her political flag clearly in the question of race and class, and that’s in the incredible 1973 speech, and she and Marsha were true revolutionaries. They named their organization after revolutionaries; they considered their movement part of the people’s revolution. Sylvia came to gay liberation through her participation in The Young Lords, which was a latino/latina revolutionary organization that was on a parallel track to the Black Panthers. She had very specific and very radical goals for a young and radical movement. It was a movement of the 60’s and by 1973 the movement turned against those girls. She was ejected, in large part for having been transgender, but also her ideas and Marsha’s ideas of class freedom and racial revolution. When we watch Victoria move forward—her discoveries are very plain on the question of race and class – that that’s where our crime rates are. That’s where we, the people, have failed to pursue the goals and ideologies of Sylvia and Marsha. The statistics are staggering about the violence against trans people, especially trans women of color. 21 known murders of transgendered people in the country so far this year and, of them, 20 are trans women of color. It’s a record year, unfortunately, and exceeds last year, which exceeds the year before. There’s this unchecked wave of crime against the community and I think—we have to rededicate ourselves to this.


On the underfunding of trans-based organizations:

I think that’s another part of our failures. [Their] constricted resources are our failures. We have starved organizations that are addressing the crime rates and epidemics against the trans community. We have starved organizations that are led by queer women of color and we have given [them] nowhere near the resources that [they need]. We have given the movement nowhere near the resources that it needs. At one point, when we were struggling to try to figure out what to call the film, one of the titles that we kept returning to was We All Killed Marsha P. Johnson and in very significant and undeniable ways that’s really true.


On his personal connection and experience with Marsha:

I knew Marsha on a very social level. Marsha planted herself on Christopher Street. She had a corner; she was always there. If you were in New York – in gay New York – in queer New York – you knew Marsha. She would call out your name or she would call out “Hi, Doll” to you and she was dispensing this kind of joy. What I came to understand during this project was that her joy was her form or resistance – that she was not going to be kept down and she was going to look positively forward and she was going to spread that joy as a part of her political mission. She was doing that from the 60’s forward and, in that way, I think when ’69 happened and the mindset changed within the community and there was an agreement across the board to advocate for liberty – freedom. No one really knew what that looked like and Marsha modeled it – she just put it on. She said “This is what it’s gonna be like” and she threw off all convention and she said “freedom is gonna be truly free and wonderful’ and that, I think, was her political contribution. When paired with Sylvia’s – Sylvia brought anger and rage to pair with Marsha’s joy and the two of them together really were kind of able to galvanize a very early movement and put things in motion. There was one person in the film who says although [Marsha] was happy and cheery it was not with out political intent and I think we see that when we find her in that old footage, We see what she’s trying to do and what she’s contributing.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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