The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson Movie Poster Image
Compelling docu traces decades-old LGBTQ fight for justice.
  • NR
  • 2017
  • 105 minutes

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Kids say

age 16+
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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Promotes fighting for a cause and against injustice, and acceptance of differences. Reminds that though progress has been made, the LGBTQ community still faces bigotry and violence. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Despite advancing age and infirmity, Victoria Cruz is determined to right a wrong; she's courageous, persistent, selfless, and smart. Over decades, members of the LGBTQ community are shown to have resisted neglect, prejudice, ignorance, and violence. Government officials are portrayed as indifferent, insulated, and lacking integrity. Ethnic diversity throughout.

Violence

While there's little on-camera violence (some threats, taunting, angry protests), offscreen violence is a key element of the story. A mysterious death, references to assaults, beatings, and killings of members of the LGBTQ community. 

Sex

No overt sexuality. The struggles of the LGBTQ community, particularly transgender individuals, are the focus of the film.

Language

Frequent obscenities (e.g., "f--k," "s--t," "goddamn").

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

References to alcoholism, "black beauties," Scotch. Some smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is a documentary that focuses on efforts to gain justice for an important transgender activist whose death in 1992 is still surrounded by mystery. But the film is more than that. It highlights many critical moments in the history of the LGBTQ movement. Marsha P. Johnson, out, proud, and committed to helping her community, was pulled from the Hudson River; authorities called the death a suicide. Years later, Victoria Cruz, a transgender advocate working under the auspices of the New York Anti-Violence Project (AVP), an LGBTQ organization, sets out to find the truth about Marsha's death. References to and conversations about violence perpetrated, particularly on transgender people, are at the forefront of the movie. Harsh language (including multiple uses of "f--k" and "s--t"), comments about drugs and alcohol, and frank descriptions of brutality are recurrent. Visuals of historic and present-day Gay Pride parades, protests, and social interactions portray a wide range of gender and style. Though not seen and not heard (there's no narration), director David France is intent upon raising consciousness while presenting a vivid picture of events as they happened and continue to happen. Mature viewers only.

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What's the story?

THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MARSHA P. JOHNSON follows the efforts of Victoria Cruz, a NYC transgender advocate, to re-open a decades-old cold case. After Marsha P. Johnson (born Malcolm Michaels) was pulled from the Hudson River on July 6, 1992, police declared her death a suicide. Law enforcement's designation has never been accepted by the LGBTQ community. Theories range from mob involvement to homophobic violence. Marsha was an outspoken trans activist, dubbed "The Rosa Parks of the LGBTQ movement."  She, along with the forceful Sylvia Rivera, was a prominent voice and face of the NYC trans community. Marginalized even by members of the gay and lesbian culture, Johnson and Rivera were determined to advance the trans cause and help their brothers and sisters. Using historical footage of protests, marches, and personal statements, as well as up-to-date interviews and efforts by Cruz to unravel the mystery, director David France portrays a specific tragedy and weaves it into the fabric of the whole movement.

Is it any good?

A mysterious death is the lens through which award-winning documentarian David France focuses his perceptive eye on the continuing fight for justice by the LGBTQ community. France uses history to illuminate the present. Marsha P. Johnson's story is the through-line of the film. However, it isn't as much her life that is explored as the lives and purpose of those who joined her in her efforts, and those who came after her. Victoria Cruz is a particularly strong advocate; her resolve to provide closure to a community is admirable. By spending some time on the 2016 murder of NY transgender woman Islan Nettles, the film ups the ante and provides context for the outrage surrounding her death and the light sentence her killer received.

The film is not without flaws. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson isn't always structured in the most cohesive way, and Marsha's life isn't at its center. Still, the message is absolutely clear. Lots for older teens and parents to discuss.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Parents can talk about awareness of controversial issues, and how information and insight changes understanding and behavior. Of what value is a movie like The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson to people who are not a part of the LGBTQ community? What is the meaning of the expression "to change hearts and minds?"

  • Was the filmmaking team successful in making Marsha P. Johnson's story relevant to ongoing LGBTQ issues? What do you think has changed since the death of Marsha P. Johnson? What hasn't? 

  • The movie spotlighted a wide company of activists and members of the LGBTQ community. Marsha's life story was often in the background in favor of deeper portrayals of Victoria Cruz, Sylvia Rivera, Randy Wicker, and others. Did you agree with the filmmakers' decision to tell the story this way? Why or why not?

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