Screen Gems

Meet Marsha P. Johnson, one of the most important black–and queer–civil rights activists

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a rewatch.

The Mystery: The Life & Death of Marsha P. Johnson

We’ve never done this here at Screen Gems, but the time has come. We’re recommending a movie more than once.

In this case, the heroine at the center of the story more than deserves it. Marsha P. Johnson’s name doesn’t get mentioned alongside that of Rosa Parks, Barbara Gittings or Angela Davis as an important activist for the African-American community, but it should. As a transgender woman, Johnson spent her life working as a drag performer, actress and activist in New York. Though some anecdotes even hold that Johnson was the first one to throw a brick at Stonewall, Johnson denied starting them. She did, however, attend Stonewall the night of the uprising, and a vocal and visible advocate for LGBTQ rights in the subsequent decades.

And yes, for the record, in the 1970s, someone could be gay and a drag queen and transgender all at the same time; Johnson proudly labeled herself as all three. In those days, gay was used more as an umbrella term, and the gulf between a drag queen and a transgender woman wasn’t as pronounced as it is today.

The documentary The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson recounts the life of Ms. Johnson, along with her work and the mysterious details of her death in 1992. Did she commit suicide, or did something more sinister happen? Director David France brings his usual energy and detail to Johnson’s life, tracking down some of her close friends, uncovering some never-before-seen footage of Johnson, and examining the circumstances of her demise. It’s a beautiful tribute to an unsung hero full of joy and live–a contribution every LGBTQ person in America benefits from.

Streams on Netflix.

Note: this article contains passages of previous articles posted here on Queerty.