trans activist says netflix’s marsha p. johnson filmmaker "ripped off" her research

Filmmaker Reina Gossett has accused director David France of using decades of her research about the LGBTQ+ rights icon for his just-released Netflix film.

by Charlotte Gush
09 October 2017, 5:49pm

Mya Taylor in Happy Birthday, Marsha!

When David France's film The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson was released on Netflix last Friday, many celebrated the long overdue telling of a pivotal moment in LGBTQ+ history (when Marsha and others fought back against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn), and the life story of Marsha as a tireless and revolutionary activist who cared deeply for her community.

The air of celebration, however, has turned sour as the artist, filmmaker and trans activist Reina Gossett has accused France of taking inspiration for the film from a grant application video she submitted with fellow artist-filmmaker-activist Sasha Wortzel; of using her language and research about STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries); and decades of archival research; as well as allegedly getting Vimeo to remove a film of hers about Marsha's fellow activist Sylvia Rivera.

In a candid Instagram post over the weekend, that Reina tagged "#deepshare #realtruth," she wrote: "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 [a reference to the meaning of Marsha's middle 'P' initial] 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," she continues. "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."

Explaining why these allegations are so pertinent to the subject of the film, Reina adds, "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," noting that she feels "so much rage and grief over all of this".

Author Janet Mock called David France out on Twitter over the issue in a long thread about Reina Gossett's work and contribution to our collective knowledge of LGBTQ+ icons. "A black trans woman's work about a black trans woman was used to make a film by a credentialed white cis man aided by Netflix's millions," Janet wrote. David France responded denying the accusations and and stating that he "began researching Marsha's life in 1992," noting that "she was a great friend of mine. Her death greatly upset me". France says he was inspired by older films about Marsha, not Reina and Sasha's, though he concludes by saying the STAR activists' stories "have been told before and must be told again with many voices, especially by trans women of colour," adding, "That's why we fully support Reina and Sasha's beautiful film".

As i-D reported back in November 2015, Reina and Sasha have been working on their own film about the life of Marsha P. Johnson. Titled Happy Birthday, Marsha!, the film follows Marsha in the hours before the Stonewall Inn raid, as she gathers friends to celebrate her birthday. As the filmmakers wrote on their Indie Gogo fundraising page, "Rarely do marginalised people drive stories about themselves on-screen, but this project is different. Happy Birthday, Marsha! is written, produced and directed by a trans woman of colour". Tangerine star Mya Taylor plays Marsha, and Eve Lindley plays Sylvia Rivera, with the diverse cast also including Cherno Biko, Rios O'Leary-Tagiuri, ( Transparent director) Silas Howard, and Grace Dunham. Donate to the project on the film's website, and watch the trailer below.

Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel currently have a film installation in Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon, a group exhibition at the New Museum in NYC. The film, titled Lost in the Music, also stars Mya Taylor and focusses on the life of Marsha P. Johnson.

David France
trans visibility
marsha p johnson
reina gossett
sasha wortzel