Friday, October 6, 2017, is a historic day, one worth pausing to celebrate. It marks the release of not just one but two documentary films about queer women of color—an occurrence we are, sadly, not likely to see again anytime soon (perhaps it will coincide with the next solar eclipse in 2024?). Two women of color, two pioneers of gender non-conformity, two icons of self-determination and courage: Marsha P. Johnson, the legendary African American transwoman who is said to have thrown the shot glass (not a brick) that started the Stonewall Riots in New York City, and Chavela Vargas, the Costa Rican-born Grammy Award-winning butch lesbian who was the toast of Mexico City and of whom there were hints of affairs with everyone from Frida Kahlo to Ava Gardner.
As of October 6, David France’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is available on Netflix streaming, and directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s Chavela opens theatrically in Los Angeles and San Francisco today (also at Film Forum in New York), with a rollout to other cities thru the rest of the month.
Filled with music and dynamic energy, the riveting Chavela dives deeply and skillfully into the complicated life of the legendary Mexican lesbian singer Chavela Vargas. The film’s production quality is outstanding, making it a joy to watch from first frame to last, especially in the perfectly selected archival footage so expertly edited by Carla Gutierrez.
The film also features remarkable interviews with friends, colleagues and Chavela’s former lover, Alicia Elena Pérez, as well as with the auteur filmmaker Pedro Almodovar who has incorporated Chavela’s songs in his films through the decades. And then there is Chavela Vargas herself—not only an unbelievably passionate performer but also a spectacular character in real life. Through extensive photographs and footage covering the course of her career we come to know and love this charismatic, gun-toting, tequila-loving, macho butch so irresistibly described by The Guardian (U.K.) as “Donald Trump’s ultimate nightmare: a Mexican lesbian diva who can wring your very soul.”
While Chavela Vargas has been world famous (especially among Spanish speaking audiences) for decades, this loving portrait should earn her a much-deserved new generation of fans and even wider appreciation across the globe.
Like Chavela, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is illuminated by an abundance of fascinating archival footage of the titular Stonewall veteran and beloved New York City black trans activist and performer of the 1970s and ’80s and her milieu.
It is commendable that director France (a gay, white man) invited veteran activist Victoria Cruz from New York City’s Anti-Violence Project to serve as his film’s primary investigator. Cruz seems a forceful, intrepid, and tireless detective as she digs into the old files and stories of Marsha’s mysterious death in 1992—seeking justice for her old friend.
Victoria’s own deeply powerful story of her life as a transwoman comes through. Curiously though there is virtually no reference made in the film to race as a component of Marsha’s identity nor of Victoria’s (in a weirdly exoticized introduction we see the slow stylized approach of Victoria, who walks with a cane and wears elaborate Native dress). Clearly Victoria’s presumably indigenous identity is very important to her but we never hear anything about it. It’s an unfortunate absence that would have enriched our sense of her whole self.
Though the film’s “true crime detective” structure works for a time, it ultimately meanders into weakly supported conspiracy theories involving the Mafia and the management of New York’s Pride march before returning to the 1992 police mishandling of the investigation into Marsha’s death (which is to say they clearly failed to conduct a proper investigation).
We hear briefly from Marsha’s family members in one short interview but disappointingly come away with little sense of her formative years. The most satisfying aspects of the film are those revolving around fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera and her complex relationship with Marsha (the project was initially titled, Sylvia & Marsha). Ultimately, the film loses focus and velocity about halfway through relying on very long sections of archival footage, which, while fascinating, don’t move the story forward. The film’s interviews with Marsha’s other friends and contemporaries are a bit of a mixed bag—fond reminiscences only go so far and we are left wanting a more substantial sense of who she was and why she was so important. We don’t really get to know Marsha as deeply as we should for a film with such a promising title.
It’s worth noting that Michael Kasino’s 2012 documentary, Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson, does a much better job enabling viewers to get to know Marsha P. Johnson. The film’s production values are extremely scrappy and the main interview with Marsha herself is just a single camera old videotape that isn’t aesthetically very interesting but the ethos of the times comes through and we get a much more vivid sense of Marsha’s charisma and philosophy of life including her strong connection to the church, her life as a drag queen and musical performer, her observations on doing sex work and much more. You can watch it for free on the fabulous Frameline Voices YouTube channel.
Nevertheless, David France’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson clearly nails the era’s zeitgeist and illustrates the fact that just as there is still no justice for Marsha, we are far from justice for so many trans women of color who have been victimized in the ensuing quarter century and continue to be so vulnerable. My complaints aside, the importance of this film simply can’t be overstated. May we someday see justice for Marsha—the saint of Christopher Street—and may the time come soon when we all live in a world where it is safe to be ourselves.