Quick Reads

Deep Focus: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

An Impressive Lookout into the groundbreaking influence of the fierce pioneer

Credit : Netflix

How do we define a great personality? Is it about the amount of work one was able to do while being alive or is it their values that stay even after they are gone? ‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’, which speaks about the late transgender activist, does not indulge heavily in her accomplishments. It delves more into the impact she had on the future generations and her peers alike. Yet it manages to convey her influence in the gay rights movement among others, as an institution of a personality that championed change and acceptance in the hostile environment.

The documentary in discussion shows the people that Marsha was able to ignite the spark in. Perhaps that is how she still lives with what she believed in - through the streams of activism – to reach the point of reverence where there are petitions to replace the Columbus statue in Elizabeth with a monument dedicated to her.  The work that preceded her death is enough to get an idea of how monumental she is in the liberation of generations ahead.  It paints a portrait of hers as a person from the work of those that she directly or indirectly influenced. 



From the film, we see how she was an extremely lively human being – someone that her peers would always want to have around – someone that made them feel validated while dealing with alienation otherwise. It was hard for them to believe that a person full of life such as hers would resort to an option like suicide. That is why her untimely death, which was ruled out as a suicide at the time raised suspicions some kind of conspiracy. She was found floating in the Hudson River in 1992 under mysterious circumstances. Through archival footage, we are given a closer look into the snippets from Marsha’s life. Interlinking with that, the film follows Victoria Cruz, a transgender woman of colour who has been following up with the case of her death, which was not pursued by the police despite several petitions. 

Besides her, the documentary gives another example influenced by her – mainly Sylvia Riviera, who was one of the closest people to Marsha. From being the frontrunner in the riots along with Marsha to having to be homeless for a long period, her perseverance and dignity were absolutely remarkable. Even in her darkest times, she was crystal-clear about what she believed in. She constantly stood up for the underprivileged, street survivors while leaving the gay rights movement - since it benefited only the middle-class well-to-do people, who were unconcerned with their troubling situation. The film addresses her life with extreme warmth and compassion. 

While focusing on unfolding the narrative in an investigative manner, the documentary definitely misses the chance to speak about the life that Marsha had led or to give the viewers more than just an idea about her personality. She used to say how the ‘P’ in her name stands for ‘pay it no mind’ and used it sarcastically with anyone asking her about her gender. 



Be it this non-confirming stance or the benevolent and caring attitude towards the underprivileged outcasts as their drag mother, there is so much to speak about the ‘life’ that the film mentions in the title. Even the incidents in her life related to the Stonewall uprising to being in the frontrunner in the Gay liberation movement and founding the radical activist group called the S.T.A.R., there are only mentioned but not elaborated in the documentary. It does not give an outlook into Marsha’s life but uses it in almost a detective tale that the director chooses to put out as a narrative. 

But the same investigative approach dives deeper into the psyche of those who followed her with their undying commitment towards the movement. It inadvertently highlights the relevance of what she stood for and the sad reality of how there is still the need for awareness about transgender rights. The rampant amount of cases of violence against transgender people is still happening and is going severely unnoticed or not being given enough attention. 

Through the film, we are given a peek into the case of Islan Nettles, who was murdered by a man for not knowing that she was transgender. A crime he committed out of shame by his peers is still tried to be minimized with one or the other loophole within the law. That is how the whole research manages to find the gaps within the system, which lets the criminal, go unpunished or unafraid. Even the officers that we are introduced with by Victoria Cruz keep dodging the blame while leaving her hope unanswered. Yet, her aged, wrinkled body still manages to ignite the much-needed fighting spirit.


You can watch the documentary film here on Netflix.