Netflix’s Documentary Looks at the Death of LGBTQ Activist

Marsha P. Johnson, Joseph Ratanski and Sylvia Rivera in 1973 as depicted by Gary LeGault.

The Capitol Theatre in Cleveland is showing Netflix’s documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, Thursday November 16 from 7:00 PM to 9:30 PM. The Theatre is showing the documentary as part of Transgender Day of Remembrance. After the documentary, attendees are free to stay behind and talk with trans people of color about the film. The event is free of charge.

On July 6, 1992 the body of rights activist and drag queen Marsha P. Johnson was found floating in the Hudson River in New York. Her death was ultimately ruled a suicide by the Sixth Precinct despite Johnson’s close friends and family saying she would never do anything like that.

Almost 25 years later, the case is still cold.

Netflix’s documentary, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” follows Victoria Cruz from the Anti-Violence Project in New York as she tries to discover the truth of Johnson’s death.

Cruz must rely on close friends of Johnson, those who saw her in the days leading up to her death and the detectives who worked the case. James Ardeu, who was the lead on Johnson’s case, refused to speak to Cruz about Johnson. One bystander who witnessed Johnson’s body being pulled out of the Hudson River said he saw a hole in the side of her head. With no access to the autopsy reports, Cruz can’t confirm or deny the information.

The department had lost the reports of Johnson’s case, but later mailed Cruz parts of the report they could recover. After Dr. Michael Baden reviewed the reports, he concluded that Johnson went into the water breathing and then drowned. There were no reports of trauma and evidence of violent assault was ruled out.

Johnson is reported to be one of the first to fight back during the Stonewall uprising. She cofounded the Street Transvestite Action Revolution (STAR), with Sylvia Rivera. STAR’s main goal was to help members of the community who were on the streets. She was referred to as the “drag mother” of the STAR house.

“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” is a must watch for all members of the LGBTQ community, allies and anybody in between or beyond. The documentary not only shows the injustices the community faced 25 years ago, but how the community is still affected by these injustices.

Though the LGBTQ community has made leaps and bounds in the past decades regarding our rights, particularly with the legalization of gay marriage across the United States in 2016, we still face many hurdles today. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 23 transgender people were killed in 2016. In 2017, 25 transgender people have been killed.

“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” tells the story of a gay rights activist and transgender woman who helped get the LGBTQ community to where it is today by giving us a voice to begin with. Whether her death was a suicide or a result of foul play may never be known, but Marsha P. Johnson’s legacy will continue through the work we do today.


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