The lines from the past to the present stay depressingly bold and unbroken. Outside of an under-populated hearing for Nettles’ killer, an activist tells Cruz that he saw gays march in the exact same spot outside the courthouse for marriage equality, but after achieving it, they seem to have no time for trans lives. There is, furthermore, an intellectually bankrupt idea among the more performatively nefarious and opportunistically homocon types who presently command attention in our culture that there’s no reason for trans people and gays to remain grouped together under the LGBT umbrella. This is ignorant and ahistorical. “If it weren’t for drag queens there would be no gay liberation movement,” Rivera says in Death and Life. That’s to say that, without the likes of Rivera, gay men would not be prominent enough in media to have the opportunity to deny people like her.

In many of these cases Rivera tells her own history, because if she didn’t who would? Johnson we hear from less—in fact, we hear most about Johnson through other people. She was“the Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement,” according to Cruz; “Andy Warhol model, prostitute, starving actress, and saint,” per a caption read by her former roommate Andy Wicker; a bodhisattva, according to activist Agosto Machado; and “this elaborate… with feathers and plumes and makeup that was never put on correctly,” in the words of her friend Kitty Rotolo, who’s interviewed from jail. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson has a different purview than a more straightforward bio-doc (like 2012's Pay It No Mind: Marsha P.Johnson), but its lack of depth on Johnson’s background and life’s work is a little too noticeably undercooked to thematically jibe with the overall necessary air of mystery.

That’s a minor quibble in our information age. Death and Life is many people’s story, but it’s Cruz’s movie. During her search, she emerges a fascinating character in her own right, a vision of patience and perseverance under a puka shell headdress. Like many in the movie, she tells her own history and while some elements of it are “lucky” (her family accepted her as trans as early as the ‘60s), it’s also marked with tragedy. You see how personal this mission of hers is: She shows a picture of a friend that was killed in 1973, explaining, “We never found out who did it or… cold case. They just didn’t care. They were trans, outcasts, society doesn’t want them. I’ve dealt with those feelings in my own personal experiences.”


France follows Cruz’s procedural so deliberately that it feels like you’re being set up for a big reveal. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson leaves questions unanswered, and relaying just what that lack of closure feels like to those who have known a trans person whose death has remained unsolved is precisely the point. The effect as polemic is massive, although from a purely cinematic perspective, the movie ultimately emerges as something of a letdown. Such is life.


But, clearly, as long as the epidemic of trans murders continues, as long as they’re going unsolved or not being prosecuted as hate crimes, the work of this movie remains unfinished. After the screening, France as well as his cast and crew who were in attendance received a standing ovation, and the director revealed that justice for Johnson may yet definitively arrive.

“We did get an unexpected call yesterday from the district attorney’s office, and they are, I think because of some of the interest we got in the newspapers leading up to tonight’s world premiere, I think they thought better of not having resolved that case themselves,” France revealed. “So they’re looking at it again now.” But even if we never learn the exact cause of Johnson’s death, the work of Cruz and France will not have been done in vain, for we now have the illuminating document of incompleteness and frustration that is The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.