Rediscovered Star: A Film about Marsha Johnson

Still from Happy Birthday, Marsha!, 2018, video, sound, color. Courtesy Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel.

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When writing queer history, one must correct the official record of the past in order to properly speak to the present and future. It is somewhat like the discovery of new planets. Where there was once thought to be nothing, astronomers find celestial bodies that account for previously unexplained gravitational pulls. So it is when queer historians examine the archive, looking for the elisions, euphemisms, and erasures that are the evidence of things unseen.

The warps and bends of history are perhaps the true subjects of Happy Birthday, Marsha!, a long-awaited short film by Tourmaline (formerly Reina Gossett) and Sasha Wortzel that celebrates the spirit and influence of Marsha P. Johnson, the black transgender activist. Johnson, a beloved fixture of the queer scene in New York’s West Village from the late 1960s until her death in 1992, is often named as a key instigator of the Stonewall uprising. Some eyewitnesses claim she started it all by flinging a shot glass at a policeman’s face. Yet until recently, she has largely slipped through the cracks of official queer histories that have privileged the struggles of white gay men over those of lesbians, trans people, and queers of color. While Happy Birthday, Marsha! asserts her importance to Stonewall, it is more delirious than documentary. Scripted scenes in which Johnson is played by Mya Taylor (star of Tangerine, a 2015 comedic drama about transgender sex workers) are interspersed with decades-old, degraded video footage of interviews with Johnson herself. The result is a fictional account of Johnson’s activities on the day of the Stonewall uprising—which in the film, unlike in reality, coincides with her birthday—that unfolds in a kind of looping and stuttering dream time.

In a staged scene that serves the emotional centerpiece of the film—and that was excerpted and shown in “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” at the New Museum in New York last year—reminiscence, prophecy, and dream time blur in a dramatic monologue. Johnson is portrayed reading rhyming verse from a journal while standing against a shimmery backdrop of silver plastic. What at first seems like a campy comedy routine for a 1960s gay audience slowly becomes an allegorical address from beyond the grave to the audience of the film. The poem resounds with the tough self-knowledge of a person who knows she will be erased from history yet keeps faith that her achievements will endure this erasure. As the poem ends, she breaks into song, singing, “And that river keeps on flowing!” in a cracking voice. The lyrics poignantly seem to predict both Johnson’s tragic death—her body was found in the Hudson River in 1992, and her death was ruled a suicide, though never investigated by police—and her future reemergence in queer chronologies.

As the poem ends, time bends again, and the screen dissolves into a choppy black-and-white video of the real Johnson, howling with laughter as she tells an interviewer, “I got lost in the music and I never came out!” We cut back to Johnson (as played by Taylor) onstage, receiving a standing ovation. Her star turn abruptly ends when a bartender snaps her out of her reverie by asking for her order. She is sitting at the bar and we see it was all a dream. Immediately after, the historic Stonewall raid begins. The film effectively ends here, with the protagonist throwing her shot glass at a cop and shoving him to the ground. A brief montage of grainy TV news reports about the Stonewall riots and archival clips of gay pride parades in the years to follow shows us all that rippled outward from Johnson’s act of freedom. But we are left with the haunting feeling that the true righteous uprising that will bring the liberation the queer community longs for still has yet to truly occur.

In reality, Johnson was not performing the night of the Stonewall uprising. And while eyewitnesses claim to have seen Johnson throw the glass, Johnson always denied it. Of course, vulnerable to police harassment as a black trans woman, she had good reason not to take credit. But the brilliance of Happy Birthday, Marsha! is the way it avoids trying to pin Johnson down like a butterfly specimen. In Arthur Jafa’s lush cinematography, Johnson and her friend Sylvia Rivera go in and out of focus, as if to underscore the fundamental unknowability of the past. The confluence of fact and fiction manages to keep Johnson’s legend intact. Stonewall itself is refreshingly deconstructed here, too, presented to us not as a historical plaque etched in stone, but as a series of contingencies, a set of oppressive conditions that could lead to an eruption any night. When we see a video of Johnson struggling to remember the actual year that Stonewall took place, we understand that the uprising was just one night in a long resistance. Indeed, it is known that riots against homophobic police violence were led by queer and trans people of color at Cooper’s Do-nuts in Los Angeles in 1956 and at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966.

The film’s fictional approach breathes new life into history. It makes the work a thrilling rejoinder to David France’s Netflix documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017). Framed around a contemporary quest to reopen the investigation into Johnson’s death, the film is expertly made and informative, but its adherence to documentary convention veers into an almost exploitative use of archival footage. There would seem to be no violence suffered by trans women that France will not depict for emotional effect, from an excruciating interview clip of Rivera in the ’90s as a homeless person, watching as her makeshift campsite is dismantled by police, to a detailed description of Johnson’s autopsy photos. Although France exhaustively presents every known piece of information about Johnson, he misses the ineffable qualities of her life. To the contrary, Happy Birthday, Marsha! never shows Johnson as a man, tells us her “real” name, discusses her death, or questions her mental health. Tourmaline and Wortzel’s film protects Johnson from the violence of the probing documentary gaze, offering a radical proposal about what truth means in the context of a transgender woman’s efforts to make a self-actualized life.

One year after Stonewall, Johnson and Rivera founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), an organization that borrowed the mutual aid tactics of groups like the Black Panthers and Young Lords to organize the queer street hustlers of the Village. Operating for three years out of a tenement—Johnson and Rivera paid the rent with their own sex work—STAR offered free food, housing, and togetherness to homeless queer youth. Johnson’s story offers a tantalizing vision of a lost transgender utopia. As Happy Birthday, Marsha! insists, this vision cannot clearly be seen today except by noting how the gravitational pull of her effort to live free influenced the lives of those around her. The film’s portrayal of Johnson is unstuck from time, like an image in a dream. But if the film was all a dream, who is the dreamer? Johnson herself, who, like all trans women, must against all odds dream her own life into existence? Or is it the filmmakers, held rapt by the flickering light of Johnson shining to them through the archive?