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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Beach Rats (2017)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

Eliza Hittman’s “Beach Rats” is unquestionably a potent piece of filmmaking.

After a glowing debut at Sundance early this year, it has claimed awards at numerous film festivals, including the prize for Outstanding Screenwriting in a U.S. Feature at Los Angeles’ own Outfest.  Now receiving wider release in movie theaters across the country, it continues to garner impressive reviews as it cements its status as the latest darling of indie LGBT cinema.

It’s also at the center of a blooming controversy which threatens to undermine that status.

A gritty, slice-of life drama, the movie documents a fateful summer in the life of Frankie, a closeted South Brooklyn teen who finds escape from his joyless life through anonymous online hookups with older guys he meets online.  As the narrative follows his efforts to mask his secret by posturing with hooligan friends and pursuing a romance with a neighborhood girl, it creates an astute portrait of internalized homophobia and the cultural pressure that breeds it.

The critical acclaim is not unwarranted.

Anchored by a breathtaking performance from the beautiful Harris Dickinson (an English actor, though you would never know it from his flawless depiction of a young Brooklyn “bro”), Hittman’s movie is sexy, haunting, and impressionistic.  It flows through a series of incidents and encounters with dreamlike detachment; its 16mm cinematography (by Hélène Louvart) creates a sense of disjointed aimlessness with hand-held camerawork, and oppresses our senses with the frequent use of extreme close-ups.  The overall effect is to keep us as completely “in the moment” as the film’s protagonist as he floats blithely along towards the inevitable collision of his two worlds.

It doesn’t all work as well as Hittman wants it to.  There are stretches when the movie’s meandering pace feels like a test of patience; its narrative is occasionally obscured by its impressionistic visual style; and one has to wonder why, in a film about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality, so much more screen time is devoted to his relationship with a would-be girlfriend than it is to his encounters with other males (no offense to the lovely Madeline Weinstein, who gives a luminous performance as the girl in question).

Ultimately, though, “Beach Rats” wields a cumulative power that grows out of its scattered moments of truth, leaving us with a clear picture of a young man disconnected from his sense of self by his own determination to be what he thinks the world expects him to be.  Frankie’s compartmentalization of his sexual identity is less about shame than it is about living up to a role in which he sees himself cast by his community.  It’s okay for him to have sex with men, as long as he keeps it separate from his “real life.” Thanks to Ellis’ subtly illuminating performance, it’s clear that his most truthful and authentic self comes to the surface when he is with his clandestine “tricks” – which makes it all the more devastating to watch him betray that self through the actions he takes to hide it.

The film’s insightful observations about such homophobic rationalization- made all the more impressive by the fact that “Beach Rats” is written and directed by a straight woman – are well worth the sometimes slow and rocky journey it takes to reach them, and would normally be reason enough to give it a hearty endorsement.

Unfortunately, ethical questions about the source of its content make such an endorsement problematic.

Though Hittman has stated in numerous interviews that her screenplay for “Beach Rats” was influenced solely by her own memories of growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhood depicted in the film, the circumstances leading up to the story’s climax are suspiciously close to those of a real-life incident.

In 2006, a black gay man named Michael Sandy arranged a meeting online with a teen named John Fox.  When he arrived, he saw four young men instead of only one and decided to leave; soon afterward, however, he contacted Fox again and arranged to meet him alone for sex.  Lured to Plumb Beach, a remote location off the Belt Parkway near Brooklyn, he was ambushed by Fox and three of his friends – Anthony Fortunato, Ilya Shurov, and Gary Timmins – who planned to steal the marijuana he had promised to bring along.  Sandy fled onto the Parkway, pursued by Fox and Shurov.  The latter shoved him into the path of a moving vehicle, which struck and killed him.  All four teens were later convicted of manslaughter as a hate crime.

The events which transpire in Hittman’s movie do not play out exactly the same way; there is no overt depiction of a killing, although the outcome is deliberately ambiguous.  Nevertheless, the specifics leading up to them – along with numerous other factual parallels that are woven into the film’s entire structure – are so similar to the highly publicized case as to raise the eyebrows of New Yorkers who remember it.

The climactic scene was even filmed, in part, at the same location where the real-life incident took place.

One detail which is glaringly different, however, is the fact that Michael Sandy’s equivalent character in “Beach Rat” is a white man.  It is this factor that has drawn the most objection, particularly in light of a cultural climate in which acute awareness has developed to the “whitewashing” of the stories told in our popular entertainment and the subject of race in general.

For her part, Eliza Hittman has repeatedly insisted that her film was drawn from her own experience and observations; when pressed by a reporter from New York’s Gay City News at an August 27 Lincoln Center screening of “Beach Rats,” she refused to answer questions about the issue – though she clarified in a written statement two days later that she was familiar with the Sandy case (while still maintaining she had not intended to depict it in her film).

It’s not uncommon for a filmmaker to draw inspiration from factual events, of course, nor is it unusual for them to change the details to suit the needs of their story.

To do so invites ethical debate about the responsibility of an artist to truth, and opens the door to controversies which may deflect attention from the work itself; but such conversation in itself can often be a pathway to wider awareness, and allows for the airing of grievances from affected parties.

To deny having done so shuts down that discourse; it casts a shadow over the film in question, tainting its integrity no matter the quality of the work or the nobility of the intentions behind it.  It also begs the question of “why?”

For the moment, at least, Hittman is steadfast in her denial.  Whether or not we can take her at her word is a matter of personal choice.