The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

thedeathandlifeofmarshapjohnson_posterToday’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Los Angeles Blade

On June 6, 1992, a body was pulled out of the Hudson River onto a West Village pier.  Bystanders quickly recognized it as that of Marsha P. Johnson, a well-known figure in the neighborhood and one of the most visible – and colorful – personalities in the ongoing movement for gay and transgender rights.

Born in New Jersey as Malcolm Michaels in 1945, Johnson had moved to New York at 18, where she became a fixture in the drag balls and street life of the Village.  By 1969 she was a regular at the Stonewall Inn, and she was a key participant in the landmark riots that began there when police raided the bar in the early morning hours of June 28 that year.  Popular legend has maintained that she was the first, or one of the first, to fight back – though she herself disputed that claim, stating that she had arrived well after the conflict had already started.  Regardless of the details, it’s undeniable that she was central to the events of that night and the nights that followed, and that she emerged as a leader in the Gay Liberation Movement that sprung out of them.

Consequently, at the time of her death, the local LGBTQ community responded with surprise and outrage when the police, without any substantial investigation, officially declaring her drowning a suicide – despite insistence from friends and witnesses that she had been a victim of foul play.

This still-unresolved controversy lies at the center of filmmaker David France’s new documentary, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” a film whose title both misleads and tells you exactly what you are about to see.

Rather than presenting a straightforward profile of the beloved LGBTQ activist, France’s film instead focuses its attention on a less famous heroine – Victoria Cruz, a case worker on the verge of retirement from New York’s Anti-Violence Project.  Dedicating her final days on the job to the pursuit of long-overdue justice, Cruz is shown re-examining the files and evidence surrounding Johnson’s untimely death.  She interviews the late icon’s family and friends – such as longtime roommate Randy Wicker, who reported Marsha missing nearly a week before her body was found.  She pores through old news clippings and footage, tracks down retired law enforcement officials, and petitions for autopsy reports long hidden in police storerooms.

Like France’s previous film, “How to Survive a Plague,” this movie is not merely a chronicle of events; rather, in following Cruz’ search for truth and justice, it evokes the spirit of activism that Marsha embodied.  The investigation into her death becomes a springboard into not only a retrospective of the struggle for rights and recognition that defined her own life and times, but into an indictment of our culture’s relationship with violence against its marginalized populations – and in particular, transgender women.

Part of the backdrop of the contemporary segments is the 2016 trial of James Dixon for the murder of Islan Nettles, a transgender woman from Harlem whom he had beaten to death after friends teased him for flirting with her.  The highly-publicized case provides a somber observation of how things have changed since Marsha’s nearly-anonymous death, yet also how much they have not.  Dixon’s defense – that he had been humiliated by “being fooled” – has eerie parallels to stories told by Marsha herself about “tricks” who became enraged after discovering her true gender (even after being repeatedly forewarned), and is a common refrain echoed in similar cases before and since.

Ultimately, as the film makes clear, it is uncertain whether Marsha met her end in such an incident, and it is beyond France’s scope to delve deeper into the issue of anti-trans violence.  Nevertheless, “The Death of Marsha P. Johnson” gives it enough of a peripheral glance to serve as a grim reminder of how far our society has yet to go in its protection of the most vulnerable among us.

Yet although it is, at its core, a film about tragedy, it’s also about the resilience of those determined to rise above it.  France gives us plenty of Marsha at her audacious best, displaying the kind of dignity and character that belied her status as one of society’s outcasts – a fringe-dweller forced to make her living as a sex worker even as she was being photographed by Warhol and lauded as one of the LGBTQ movement’s foremost campaigners.  Marsha had it tough, but she devoted herself to making life better for an entire community whose existence was a daily struggle.

Reinforcing this theme of dedication, the movie devotes considerable screen time to Sylvia Rivera, another social justice pioneer who was Johnson’s closest friend.  Archival footage documents not only their side-by-side efforts for the trans community, but also her own fall into alcoholism and homelessness before reclaiming her role as one of the movement’s greatest heroines.

Watching these two “drag queens” (their own preferred self-identification), presented alongside the modern-day saga of Cruz and others who carry their torch, brings home the point of “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.”  Though France provides the biographical background we expect, and piques our interest with a true-life detective story, his true purpose is not to inform or to intrigue – he wants to inspire us, even incite us.  His movie is no less than a call to action.

Though she never referred to herself as “transgender,” Marsha was nevertheless a fierce activist and vocal advocate for the trans community, and has been embraced as one of their most revered icons.  At a time in our history when the powers that be are pushing back hard against trans acceptance and equality, David France’s film is an important reminder of the humanity at stake.

By using her life – and death – as a means to spread that message, he does Marsha P. Johnson proud.

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The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin (2017)

maupin_sxsw

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in
The Los Angeles Blade

For a certain generation of gay men and women, the name Armistead Maupin will always strike a deep and richly satisfying chord in the soul.  His serialized “Tales of the City,” which ran throughout the late seventies and early eighties in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle (and later the San Francisco Examiner) before being widely published as a series of popular novels, captured the heady atmosphere of its exciting time, and through the intertwined sagas of its assorted characters – gay, straight, and in between – it encouraged its readers to embrace their own queerness and live an open and authentic life.

Nearly forty years later, Maupin’s beloved stories are as relevant as ever.  With three successful TV miniseries having brought them to an even wider audience (and a fourth reportedly in the works), the lives of Mary Ann, Mouse, Mona, and Mrs. Madrigal are as famous and familiar to many of us as our own – much more famous and familiar, in fact, than the life of their creator.

That may soon change.  The author has penned a memoir, ”Logical Family,” which will be published in October.  Around the same time, a documentary, “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin,” is due to hit screens after a tour of film festivals across the country – including a recent showing at Los Angeles’ own Outfest.

Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot (also responsible for 2014’s documentary, “To Be Takei”), the new film takes audiences on a tour of Maupin’s storied career, of course, but it also delves into the life he lived before becoming one of the foremost literary voices of the LGBTQ community.

Born into a North Carolina family with roots in the aristocracy of the American South, Maupin grew up in a deeply conservative environment.  He became interested in journalism while attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and spent time after his graduation working for future U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, who managed a TV station in Raleigh.  Subsequently, he served multiple tours of duty in the U.S. Navy (one in Viet Nam) before returning to the states to begin the newspaper career which would ultimately take him to San Francisco.

Needless to say, perhaps, he remained closeted throughout all this time.  Though he knew he was gay from an early age, he never acted upon it until he was 26 years old.  The details of that encounter are among the many biographical anecdotes Maupin shares in interviews throughout Kroot’s movie.

A considerable portion of the film’s 90 minute run time, in fact, is made up of interview footage, but this never feels like a cop-out.  This is largely due to the way Kroot pieces together her movie; instead of placing events in a chronological sequence, she separates them into sections devoted to particular subject matter, cross-referencing between time periods to make connections and underscore recurring themes in the author’s life and work – and by extension, in the history of the LGBTQ community.

This process is facilitated by the use of archival footage, a wealth of photographs capturing the rich history of San Francisco, and even animated sequences which serve as transitions between the movie’s various chapters.  There is liberal use of excerpts from the televised adaptations of “Tales,” which astutely illustrate the parallels between the author’s real-life story and the events and characters in his writing.

Even so, the movie’s strongest appeal comes from hearing Maupin speak for himself, which he does with disarming wit and candor; his expansive persona comes across onscreen with so much easy-going familiarity that one walks away from the film with the impression of having spent the time with him in person – not as an audience member, but as an intimate friend.  It doesn’t feel like artifice, either.  Though he carries the air of a genteel “southern gentleman” (there’s still the slightest hint of that accent), and though he displays a well-mannered delicacy even as he talks openly about his own sexual exploits, there is no arrogance or pretense here.  He comes across as the genuine article, a product of his past who approaches life with an open heart.

Though Maupin’s interviews form the bulk of the film’s “talking head” footage, there are a host of others offering their insights as well.  Appearances from Neil Gaiman, Amy Tan, Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Margaret Cho, and several others help to illuminate the far-reaching impact made by the author – not just through his work, but through his connections and influence as a core figure in LGBTQ culture.  Though he himself maintains a tasteful humility, the film makes it clear that Maupin is as much of an icon as any of the famous names with whom he has rubbed elbows over the years.

As interesting as all this biographical information may be, though, Kroot’s film does not use it as an end in itself; rather, it helps her to impart a much deeper revelation about her subject.  For by tracing Maupin’s path through the past five decades in the history of gay life, she shows just how much he has given back to the community that made him a success.  After all, he made his name by giving voice to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of millions of his fellows; and in doing so he provided a touchstone for them all, a sort of emotional road map by which they could chart their own journeys through the changing social and sexual attitudes of the era.  Quite simply, he united them into a sort of extended family.

This point is driven home in what is perhaps the movie’s most memorable sequence, in which Maupin relates how he came out to his family through one of his most beloved characters.  In “More Tales of the City,” Michael “Mouse” Tolliver writes a letter to his mother telling her that he is gay, in a chapter expressly written by the author with the intention that his own parents would read it and understand that it was his personal message to them.  Kroot then splices together segments of the letter being read (and sung) aloud, powerfully illustrating how Maupin’s work gave words to the hearts and minds of an entire community – and providing an unexpectedly moving culmination to her film.

Powerful climax notwithstanding, “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” is largely a light affair; though it necessarily travels down a few dark roads (after all, the author’s history runs straight through the middle of the AIDS epidemic), it is marked throughout by a tone of wit and positivity – fully in keeping with the good-natured personality of its subject.  It flies by and leaves you hungry for more, like a coffee date with an old friend with whom you can never spend enough time.  It will likely inspire you to revisit “Tales of the City,” or even better, to discover some of Maupin’s other writings.  Perhaps it will even inspire you to live more freely, like the denizens of 28 Barbary Lane.

Whatever it inspires you to do, you will find it to be time well-spent.