Director David France On Why He Made “The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson”

"Marsha was a friend of mine so I had a personal imperative to revisit her story."

The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson debuted on Netflix on Friday, but within 24 hours, allegations were swirling director David France (How to Survive A Plague) had stolen research, language, and even staff from another filmmaker.

#tdov #transdayofvisibility #marshapjohnson #payitnomind #transhistory [photo from Randy Wicker's collection]

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In an Instagram posted Saturday, trans filmmaker Reina Gossett alleged France was inspired to make The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson by a grant application video she and co-director Sasha Wortzel submitted for their forthcoming feature, Happy Birthday, Marsha.

“This week, while I’m borrowing money to pay rent, David France is releasing his multimillion dollar Netflix deal on Marsha P. Johnson,” Gossett wrote. “I’m still lost in the music trying to #pay_it_no_mind and reeling on how this movie came to be and make so much $ off of our lives and ideas.”

#deepshare #realtruth this week while I'm borrowing money to pay rent, david france is releasing his multimillion dollar netflix deal on marsha p johnson. i'm still lost in the music trying to #pay_it_no_mind and reeling on how this movie came to be and make so much $ off of our lives and ideas. david got inspired to make this film from a grant application video that @sashawortzel & I made and sent to Kalamazoo/Arcus Foundation social justice center while he was visiting. He told the people who worked there -i shit you not- that he should be the one to do this film, got a grant from Sundance/Arcus using my language and research about STAR, got Vimeo to remove my video of Sylvia's critical "y'all better quiet down" speech, ripped off decades of my archival research that i experienced so much violence to get, had his staff call Sasha up at work to get our contacts then hired my and Sasha's *ADVISOR* to our Marsha film Kimberly Reed to be his producer. And that's just the shit I have the spoons to name. TRUSTTHERE'SSOMUCH MORE. This kind of extraction/excavation of black life, disabled life, poor life, trans life is so old and so deeply connected to the violence Marsha had to deal with throughout her life. So I feel so much rage and grief over all of this & STAR must have some serious level plan on moving through many—and clearly by any means necessary—to get the message out… So tonight I'm channeling high priestess energy to show me the honey throne cuz this storm queen is

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Gossett alleges France told the Arcus Foundation he should be the one to make a film about Johnson, and even used her research about Johnson’s activist group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) for his film.

“[He] got Vimeo to remove my video of Sylvia’s critical ’Y’all better quiet down’ speech, ripped off decades of my archival research that I experienced so much violence to get, [and] had his staff call Sasha up at work to get our contacts.”

Claiming France hired Kimberly Reed, her advisor on Happy Birthday to be his producer,” Gossett teased. “And that’s just the shit I have the spoons to name.”

France addressed the allegations on Twitter, saying, in part, “I learned of Happy Birthday Marsha well into our work and reached out, worried we were duplicating efforts. We were not.”

“Our intention was always to have archival footage allow for Marsha and Sylvia to tell their stories in their own voices,” he responded on Facebook. “Nothing in the film’s concept, research or execution came from anyone outside of this process or our immediate team.”

France says he reached out to Gossett about sharing resources and, believing the two projects were sufficiently different, connected her with his film’s backers. He also told Mock he made a financial donation to Happy Birthday, Marsha.

Although some will be deterred by Gossett’s allegations, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson will likely find an audience: It’s a well-intentioned attempt at ensuring pioneers like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are given their due—and it serves as reminder not to let societal expectations dictate who we can be.

But given the controversy, the question is now: Who is allowed to—and supported in—telling these stories?

NewNowNext spoke with France on Friday morning—one day before Gossett posted her Instagram. Asked how he, as a cisgender white gay man, felt about doing Johnson’s story justice, he replied, “I am a member of the LGBTQ community. I identify more as queer than as gay, and I feel an obligation—an actual affirmative obligation—to tell the stories of people in my community.”

Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images

France added that Johnson was a friend of his, “so I had a personal imperative to revisit her story, certainly at a time when no one else had done it. To bring it to life for a new generation of people who may not have known her.”

Working as a HIV/AIDS reporter at the Village Voice in the 1990s, France was assigned to look into the investigation (or lack thereof) into Johnson’s 1992 death. But between his unfamiliarity with crime reporting and the lack of information on the case, he regretted he was never able to finish Johnson’s story. (France was also mourning the AIDS-related death of his partner at the time.)

It’s only been in the last few years that Johnson has been known outside of New York’s LGBT community. Advocates complain her contributions to equal rights have been ignored in discussions, history books, and depictions like Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film, Stonewall.

France says that she didn’t try to correct the narrative when she was alive because it wasn’t really necessary.

“There were still so many people around at the time who knew what happened [at the riots]” he explains. “In the years after that, the efforts to historicize that time has taken very peculiar turns—and one of them is Roland Emmerich’s film. He really laid out an indefensible task for himself, which was to create a kind of super-mythology of people like himself having been involved in and spearheading the Stonewall rebellion. And it just wasn’t true.”

Emmerich’s whitewashed verrsion of the riots, says France, “was significantly rejected by the community at large at the time. I think everybody understood the mistakes that he had made in trying to change that history.”

Stonewall isn’t a huge focus in France’s film—the riots feature more prominently in Happy Birthday, Marsha. Instead, France follows Victoria Cruz in her efforts to speak with unhelpful cops, Johnson’s family, and her former roommate, Randy Wicker. (Wicker maintains Christopher Street Pride organizers’ ties to the Mafia led to Johnson’s death.)

Death and Life doesn’t provide a wealth of detail about Johnson’s younger years or her evolution as an activist: She’s already a beloved Christopher Street icon when the film starts. There’s no real discussion of being one of Andy Warhol’s muses or of her fertile love life. (France says Johnson kept count of how many “husbands” she’d had—a whopping 19.)

“I don’t make traditional documentaries—the kind where people sit on sofas or behind desks and interpret the lives of others,” France said. “I wanted to let people speak for themselves and tell their own stories, and for Marsha, the importance of her story began in New York City. And it involved her love for and engagement with people in the city. So I chose to follow her leadership for her documentary, to let her to speak for herself and to not impose a layer of so-called experts who would largely be academics or historians between Marsha and her message. So that’s why the film is structured the way it is. It’s the story that Marsha told of herself.”

The Death And Life of Marsha P. Johnson is on Netflix now.

 

Happy Birthday, Marsha is in post-production. You can donate to help finish the film.

Trish Bendix is a Los Angeles-based writer.
@trishbendix