Marsha P. Johnson (Netflix)

This is the second offering from David France after 2012’s highly regarded How to Survive a Plague, about the early response to the AIDS epidemic. This time, France goes back into the past once again to investigate the death of the iconic trans and gay rights activist Marsha P. Johnson. She was one of the drag queens at the Stonewall Inn during the riot that incited the gay rights movement. In 1992, her body was found floating in the Hudson River. France, along with Victoria Cruz, a trans woman and case worker for the New York City Anti-Violence Project, reopen the cold case.

Signs point to Johnson being murdered for her activism, but the timing is certainly bizarre. For three decades she was outspoken, so why all of a sudden one pre-dawn morning in July 1992 would someone murder her? Evidence is scant, and the New York Police Department’s Sixth Precinct is uncooperative. Certainly France and Cruz know they are most likely going to come up empty-handed (Cruz’s bulletin board has index cards that narrow down the suspects to: “corrupt police,” “mafia,” or “4 Guidos”), but if anything, they are calling attention to the issue that the criminal justice system still to this day is not interested in finding justice for violence against trans people.

Johnson and her group of friends were “street queens,” drag queens who roamed the streets of major cities like New York and San Francisco day and night, interacting with the public as full-time LGBTQ advocates. Their entire lives were devoted to queer visibility, putting themselves at risk of violence and arrest (it used to be illegal to cross-dress in public).

While the documentary mostly focuses on Johnson, there are periodic flashes to the current day and the struggle for justice in cases of violence against transgendered people. While it was being filmed, there was the widely-publicized trial of James Dixon for the 2016 beating death of trans woman Islan Nettles. Cruz stands outside the courthouse, where only two or three other trans rights advocates are awaiting the trial’s verdict. (Dixon received a lax 12 years, which he probably won’t have to serve in its entirety.)

As one of the other advocates tells Cruz, people came out in huge numbers to demonstrate in support of gay marriage, but now that the privileged members of the LGBTQ community have the right to marry, they are turning a blind eye to this greater injustice perpetrated against impoverished members of their community. This is a sentiment that is echoed not just in this film but also in this year’s Kiki, a documentary about New York City trans teens, most of whom live in poverty. The prevailing thought that both documentaries strike at is that while the system is undoubtedly corrupt, very little progress is being made because so many members of the LGBTQ community (and allies) think winning the right to marry marked the end of the gay rights movement.

With this film, France seems to have honed his storytelling technique. It’s even laugh-out-loud funny at moments. How could it not be, given the lighthearted nature of the people he’s documenting? There is hardly a second that goes by that is not engaging. Johnson and her former partner in crime, Sylvia Rivera, are wonderful subjects for documentary. There’s a speech Rivera gives, an impromptu emotional rant against members of the gay community who are better off than her, that in a perfect world would be played in elementary schools alongside Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Then there is the star of the film, Victoria Cruz, a contemporary of Johnson and Rivera who adorns herself in all black, wears Native American headdresses, has cataract in one eye, and walks with a cane. Even though she is hobbled and has been the target of atrocious violence, she fights the good fight. Hopefully after the release of The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson on Netflix October 6th, she’ll have more compatriots willing to take up the fight with her.

Directed by David France
Released by Netflix
USA. 105 min. Not rated