On a summer day in 2013, James Dixon, believing his masculinity was in jeopardy, brutally beat Islan Nettles to death on a Harlem sidewalk after his friends made fun of him for flirting with the transgender woman. Dixon received just 12 years behind bars.
Nettles’ story runs parallel to Marsha P. Johnson’s in Netflix’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. A transgender activist and icon—who is credited for inciting the Stonewall uprising of 1969—Johnson’s body was found on July 6, floating in the Hudson River. Police were quick to rule her death a suicide, but friends strongly believed that Johnson had been murdered.
In the documentary, directed by David France, archival footage and interviews with Johnson’s family and friends create a picture of a magnetic person who had much, much more to offer the world.
But, Johnson shares the spotlight in the documentary with two other trans activists: her best friend, Sylvia Rivera and Anti-Violence Project advocate, Victoria Cruz.
Cruz leads the investigation into Johnson’s death, shedding light on ways in which the police failed to fully investigate Johnson’s death. She redirects the film when it begins to stray from Johnson’s story—really the only problem with the documentary.
Rivera, Johnson’s closest friend and staunch activist, is the film’s heart. Viewers watch as Sylvia urges the gay and lesbian community not to marginalize the transgender people who fought so hard for their equality, giving a powerful and heartbreaking speech in the film as a crowd of people boo her.
Both women represent how we continue to fail transgender people. Police barely give Johnson’s death the time of day and Rivera shows how within an already marginalized group there can be even more division.
There’s also the subtle, but still glaring reminder that resources for the transgender community are barely there. Cruz’s investigation is cut short because the Anti-Violence Project simply doesn’t have the funds.
Rivera is left homeless and soon removed from the area she’s settled in as development begins along the West Side Highway. Transgender people are often incorrectly housed, discriminated against, and mistreated in shelters. Safe spaces are very limited.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson may be billed as a film about a transgender icon, her death and the light extinguished too soon, but it’s also a reminder that there is still much work to be done.
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