By Hector Solozano, Culture Editor
On October 6, 2017, Netflix released a documentary titled “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” which has developed into a controversy involving activist, writer, and filmmaker Reina Gossett. Gossett is a black trans women who spent countless hours researching and obtaining files containing information about Marsha P. Johnson. They were developing a documentary about Johnson’s life along with Sasha Wortzel.
“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” dives deep in the unsolved case of the death of Johnson. It also creates a narrative for the activism and accomplishments Johnson participated in during the New York City Stonewall riots. Archived videos of speeches made by Johnson and Silvia Rivera, found by Reina Gossett, were presented in the film. The speeches, especially Rivera’s “ya’ll better quiet down” speech, were critical to the inclusion of the trans community in the LGBT movement.
After the documentary premiered on Netflix, Gossett posted a picture and a caption on Instagram pertaining to the release of the film. They begin with “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 [...] reeling on how this movie came to be and make so much $ off of our lives and ideas.” According to Gossett’s post, France was inspired to make a film about Johnson when Wortzel and Gossett made a grant application video and sent it to the Arcus Center for scoial Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College while he was visiting the center. He later succeeded at getting in touch with the contacts and advisors Wortzel and Gossett discovered during their research.
David France released a statement on Facebook stating his version of what played out. “Reina Gossett has suggested that I’ve stolen both the concept and footage for “The Death and life of Marsha P. Johnson” from her work, the experimental short narrative “Happy Birthday, Marsha. I owe a debt to those who have kept Marsha’s story alive over the years.” France also explains that he had began his research on Johnson years before he knew about Gossett’s film. He ends his statement by saying; “I admire Reina Gossett and look forward to her beautiful film. Alone, among researchers, she has dedicated her work to the legacy of Marsha and early trans activism.”
In an op-ed for Teen Vogue, Gossett further opens up about the controversy and said, “We did a ton of archival research, interviewing, and collecting oral histories.” She also claims that she applied for the same grants that “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” director David France applied for. Without the same platform and recourses as France, Gossett and Wortzel knew they would face difficulties in accomplishing the film. The biggest problem Gossett seems to have according to her essay is that this film should have been made and presented by people of the trans community. “I can’t stop thinking about the voices that have been pushed aside in the process. Too often people with resources who already have a platform become the ones to tell the stories of those at the margins rather than people who themselves belong to these communities,” Gossett said.
Gossett continues to work on her film “Happy Birthday, Marsha!,” a biopic about the life of Marsha P. Johnson and her surrounding companions. The prejudice, violence, and injustice Marsha P. Johnson faced up to the day of her death, are still present in the life of Reina Gossett. The trans community continues to fight for their rights and inclusion both in present movements and past, fighting through the obstacles society places in front of them. To support Gossett and their work, you can visit their website www.reinagossett.com or www.happybirthdaymarsha.com.