Friday, January 17, 2020

David France | The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

stopping by stonewall
by Douglas Messerli

David France and Mark Blane (writers), David France (director) The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson / 2017

Netflix’s documentary film by David France, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is not just a work about its titular hero, but a story about three women, Marsha—a drag queen, possibly transgender figure, born Malcolm Michaels, Jr., who didn’t want to determine his life as either male or transgendered female (if there was ever a Q in the LBGTQ community, Marsha represents it)—his close friend, quite clearly a transgendered figure, Sylvia Rivera, and, perhaps the most interesting of
them all, Victoria Cruz, working for the New York City Anti-Violence Project in an attempt to solve the violent death as her very last investigation—a cold case described by the police as a suicide in 1992—and who doggedly in her near-retirement years, attempts to track down the real culprits.
      This was a terribly painful movie for me, since it involves the Greenwich Village gay community of which I was involved just a few weeks before I left New York previous to the significant Stonewall Bar riots.
      Night after night I began my evenings, after studying dance at the Joffrey Ballet studio, from Julius’ for a hamburger dinner—in which many of this film’s scenes are filmed—turning the corner to Christopher Street and walking past Stonewall (sometimes even dropping into the dive-like bar) before making my way down the street to the a bar near the Hudson, which was clearly more friendly to the college white boy world from which I’d come, with a very large back room for a nightly orgy of bodies which I loved.
      After watching this insightful film, about Rivera and Johnson’s abilities to establish the gay liberation movement, and their attention to lost street children through their S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) housing project, and, in particular, Johnson’s attention to men and women dying from AIDS, I wish I’d stopped in more often to the Stonewall. If I had stayed longer in New York City, I now realize, I might have been one of the gay-white men who usurped the gay liberation marches which annually followed, barely allowing Rivera to even speak at one of their later events, after the terrible death of the queen founder, Johnson.
      What I didn’t know, and thousands of other gay men did not realize as well: these gay/transgender women had made all of us freer.
       Yet the Mafia, who controlled most of these Village gay bars also controlled the celebratory parades, and evidently, according to this film and Cruz’s investigations into the facts, even some of Johnson’s dearest friends, such as Randy Wicker, who later attempted to take back the gay marches from the Mafia control, had perhaps unintentionally helped to allow her violent death.
       It seems apparent that Johnson’s fears about the Mafia were behind her murder. She was just too flamboyant and popular for these mob bosses to ignore. She was a voice, clearly, that stood against their own secret control of a world which—the so-called midgets of the brutal Mafia world—it would soon become apparent, helped also, unintentionally, to kill hundreds of their bar-customers through AIDS.
       Marsha—whose middle initial, she proclaimed stood for “pay it no mind”—was beloved by all, a clearly caring individual who dressed in male and female attire daily. She/he was obviously way beyond sexual gendering with which we still today attempt to define individuals.
       This wonderful documentary even attests to the segregation of gay males and transgendered people, each marching down opposite sides of the street. Rivera’s later plea to the gay men who have captured the “Pride Parade’s” annual events, shouts to the crowd, as they booed her down, shaming them for their failure to comprehend how they are now as responsible for the police dismissal of and continual deaths of transgender or drag-queen individuals.
      I realized, while watching this moving film, that I too was guilty. As a gay man, proud of my sexuality, I had long ignored the difficulties of those who didn’t share my own sexual sensibilities.
If only I had dropped into the Stonewall more often, talked to the denizens of that small, somewhat sleazy bar, I might have discovered another world which as a young man I simply dismissed.
     Marsha often haunted the Hudson piers, which I’d heard about, but never visited, just a block away from the bar in which I regularly received sexual delight. She evidently was a force not to be reckoned with, a true adventurer who cared about the entire LGBT and now Q world which I, as a 20-some year-old never perceived.
     At one point in this film, she is reported to be visiting The Anvil, another East Side bar which I only one time visited, where I met my first lover, Dick Charmatz, then a curator at the Natural History Museum of New York, who I presume is no longer living.
      Marsha was killed, given the evidence that Cruz accumulates, probably by the Mob, but she is killed, in their total lack of investigation, also by the 6th Precinct Police Force: a kind of double murder, by the government which was supposed to protect her, and the mafia who paid off the police to protect their then-illegal sexual dens. I was there. I was one of their participants without even knowing about it. I drank their liquor; I enjoyed the pleasures offered in their illegal interiors.
     An innocent boy from the Midwest, how could I know it was all be offered up to me for the death of the individual who helped, a few months later, to transform myself into a sexual rebel? Howard and I were saved from prejudice through this man/woman’s death.
     I lived and she died, a kind of Christ-like figure. I now feel I can never forgive myself for just not stopping into the Stonewall Bar to meet her.

Los Angeles, January 17, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2020).

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