Marsha P. Johnson's LGBTQ Legacy Is About How She Lived Her Life, Too
In the film 'Happy Birthday, Marsha!' Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel use the little archival information we have about Marsha P. Johnson to construct a story about the LGBTQ activist who helped kick off the Stonewall Riots.
Photo courtesy of Happy Birthday, Marsha!
“I got lost in the music in 1963 at Stonewall… No! No, it was Stonewall—it was 1967 that I got lost. In 19– oh my dear, Stonewall, I got lost at Stonewall. Heard it through the grapevine. 1969! I got lost in the music and I couldn’t get out. Still can’t get out of the music.”
So says Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson in a clip of VHS footage shot in 1991, which has been woven into the much-anticipated film Happy Birthday, Marsha!, an experimental short that explores the activist’s legacy through a moment in her life. Following the world premiere at OutFest 2018 in Los Angeles earlier this year, the film’s New York City premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on August 16 was a homecoming for a project indebted, from conceptualization to production, to Marsha’s old stomping grounds.
Marsha, a black “street queen” (or transgender woman, as we might say today) lived from 1945 to 1991. She’s revered for kicking off the queer liberation movement at the legendary 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, a forceful confrontation between LGBTQ bar-goers and the police after a summer of violent policing.
Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel, who collaboratively wrote, directed, and produced the film, embrace the flexibility of Marsha’s memories: Happy Birthday is animated by the feeling of a moment, instead of the particularities of a time and date. The film presents an imagined, yet rigorously researched rendition of a humid evening in Marsha’s life—the legendary night of the Stonewall Rebellion. Stitching together “documentary techniques with fictionalized narrative,” as Tourmaline and Wortzel tell me over the phone, the 15-minute film“refuses categorization” as a documentary, drama, or biopic.
In Happy Birthday, Marsha!, Tourmaline and Wortzel fabulate Marsha’s fleeting joys, desires, and anxieties in scenes visually marked by a kaleidoscopic shimmer that dances across the screen. Drawing from interviews and conversations with contemporaries of Marsha’s, like Jimmy Camicia, Jay Toole, and Miss Egyptt (all of whom are cast in the film), Tourmaline and Sasha practice a “refusal of evidence.” The directors’ intervention is also made through a commissioned poem by actor, activist, and writer Cyrus Dunham, who portrays Junior, a fictionalized flirt and friend of Marsha’s.
Says Wortzel, “We thought we were going to make a documentary. But [the movie] is not exactly what we thought [it would be] when we first got started. We became so hyper-aware of what wasn’t recorded. Of what we could find, it was unclear who was presenting these images; what lenses these stories were being filtered through. So often documentation, or storytelling, or reporting—so much of our history—doesn’t come from queer and trans people.”
Marsha populates historical documents and objects, including Andy Warhol Polaroid portraits and filmed performances in bars, yet there remains much we cannot know about Marsha. When the details of a recorded history are smudged, the form and method of remembering must be reconsidered. Instead of being discouraged by the dearth of documentation of Marsha’s life, Tourmaline and Sasha welcomed the holes in the archive as an invitation.
“Tourmaline and I were trying to tell a story spotlighting Marsha’s interiority and complexity, without reproducing violences or erasures,” says Wortzel.
Tourmaline says Marsha was their instructor in finding new possibilities for portraying real-life experiences and people. “One of the things that is so specific to Marsha was her imagination and relationship with people and places that no one else could see. Marsha would talk about seeing her dad and Neptune in the Hudson River. She would take off all of her clothes and give them as an offering to the Hudson River and Neptune. She also had various psychiatric disabilities and mental illnesses.”
Cutting between hazy archival clips and lush imagined scenes of Marsha preparing for her big birthday bash, Happy Birthday, Marsha! sneaks audiences through a plausible life story that was “lost in the music,” into the moments leading up to the rebellion. To do this, Tourmaline and Wortzel engaged with Black feminist scholar Saidiya Hartman’s concept of critical fabulation. Critical fabulation facilitates creative interpretation of the past in order to resuscitate those overlooked in the historical record. (Hartman’s methodology is specific to the fraught retrieval of facts surrounding Black women’s lives under the reign of chattel slavery’s terror.) Hartman does not advocate baseless conjecture, but stresses the importance of sketching forgotten lives in greater detail. Otherwise, history risks collapsing the marginalized into the circumstances of their deaths.
This is the case in David France’s controversial documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, where Marsha’s life is primarily defined, both in the Netflix film’s title and its narrative form, through her death.
Happy Birthday, Marsha! intends to shed light on all the social experiences that elude the shutter of a camera, the scrawl of a pen, or the crackles of a microphone—like transphobic harassment. In one scene, Marsha stands outside Stonewall Inn, the sun high in the sky. The owner of the Inn boots Marsha from his storefront, saying, “You know you can’t be hanging out here.”
“At the time, there were anti-crossdressing laws in New York City that were largely enforced in public spaces,” says Tourmaline. “Defying was very important to a whole community of low-income trans and gender-nonconforming people, and people of color who were gender-nonconforming, disabled, and homeless.”
In another scene, a police officer assaults and strangles Marsha against a wire fence, the tension ultimately culminating with the cop casually strolling away. Tourmaline explains, “Harsh penalties by the NYPD and normative culture were visited upon those who pushed those boundaries. We really want to make sure that sentiment is intertwined in the core of the film, whether it was in the production, like archival materials, or Marsha having various moments of daydreaming. We wanted to make space to show how Marsha might’ve seen the world.” The unending violence against black trans women is a known fact which ultimately led to Marsha’s death, but rather than ruminating on her verifiable murder, as France does, the directors tell me that they treat the film as a sort of time travel, a means to impossibly re-experience lives of the past.
Tourmaline and Wortzel also aim to look at Marsha’s friendships and daily life. In the film, after she is shooed away from the Stonewall’s storefront, Marsha hands a playfully illustrated birthday party invitation to her gal pal and fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera. The film breathes life into an opaque intimacy (which is otherwise predominantly seen in photographs of their activism): Sylvia proves to be a total flake, forgetting Marsha’s birthday. She recovers, as good friends do, by suggesting a night out at Stonewall.
Elevating Marsha and her story to the status of myth would have been easy. The film does not indulge in such an easy pleasure. Following 2018’s Pride month, when social media feeds bloomed with graphics commemorating Marsha’s contributions to the queer liberation movement, the film cautions against the idolization of Marsha. In one of the final scenes, a response is offered to the perception of Marsha as the queer movement’s “Rosa Parks,” as PAPER dubbed her. Marsha sits at the Stonewall Inn bar to celebrate her anticlimactic birthday. She dreams of singing on stage with a bouquet of flowers climbing from her hair, reciting:
“If I wanted to be a saint, I’d be loyal to the law and not the queens in the park / If I wanted to be a saint, I’d just pray to the pigs. I’d say, ‘Yes, Mister Officer,’ instead of ‘Fuck you! That’s my wig!’”
The directors explain that Dunham, who wrote these lines, took inspiration from a soul poem Marsha performed in the group Hot Peaches with playwright and director Jimmy Camicia. It rejects a politics of purity that, Tourmaline asserts, easily lends itself to white supremacy and ableism, saying, “Her sainthood exists only in her contradictions.”
Happy Birthday, Marsha! also unravels the myth that Stonewall is queer resistance’s “origin story.” For the directors, queer disruption is not singular, nor can it have a marked beginning. “What does it matter what date Stonewall was? We’ve been doing this all along,” Wortzel says, interpreting the VHS interview where Marsha seems momentarily unable to remember the year of the riot.
Resistance cannot be isolated to a coherent plot point in a Hollywood drama’s arc. It flows through unrecordable moments of strutting in the streets while laws and norms police bodies, affect, and clothing. Happy Birthday, Marsha! illuminates how resistance also hovers in the intimate ways we hold and regard one another—the embraces that aren’t written down.