Netflix debuted “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” on Oct. 6, but filmmaker Reina Gossett claims that the documentary’s director, David France, appropriated her idea and research for the project.
“David got inspired to make this film from a grant application video that Sasha [Wortzel] and I made and sent to Kalamazoo/Arcus Foundation social justice center while he was visiting,” Gossett wrote in a statement, shared today on Twitter by author and activist Janet Mock. “He told the people who worked there — I shit you not — that he should be the one to do this film.”
She then alleged that to make his film and secure a grant from the Sundance Institute and the Arcus Foundation, France pilfered her contacts as well as her work on advocacy group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Additionally, Gossett wrote that France convinced Vimeo to take down a video she’d uploaded of a stirring speech by Johnson’s good friend, Sylvia Rivera. “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,” wrote Gossett. “I feel so much rage and grief over all of this.”
Gossett, a black, trans woman who currently serves as activist-in-residence at the Barnard College Center for Research on Women’s Social Justice Institute, wrote, directed, and produced with Wortzel “Happy Birthday, Marsha!” a fictional short film about gay liberation pioneer and drag queen Johnson, who some credit for the shattered shot glass that launched New York City’s Stonewall riots. Set in the hours prior to that historic night in 1969, “Happy Birthday, Marsha!” starred “Tangerine” actress Mya Taylor and benefited from more than $35,000 in Indiegogo donations.
Shortly after Gossett published her statement, France refuted its claims, also on Twitter. On Oct. 8, he released an official statement. France wrote that he began investigating Johnson when she was found dead in 1992 at age 46, after she’d been missing for six days. At the time, France was covering LGBTQ issues for The Village Voice. But the case had no active leads, and the AIDS crisis was unfolding. Two decades later, France began looking into Johnson’s death once again, carrying out his “own scholarship,” which included sourcing, digitizing and licensing archival footage with help from the Anti Violence Project, and interviewing those who knew Johnson and Riviera.
“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!,'” he wrote. “Nothing in the film’s concept, research or execution came from anyone outside of this process.” Still, he considers himself indebted “to those who have kept Marsha’s story alive over the years. My creative work builds on theirs.”
In addition, when he learned of “Happy Birthday, Marsha!,” he believed the two endeavors “seemed different enough,” as one is a fictional short while the other is a documentary feature. Both could enrich the canon of onscreen work — such as Arthur Dong’s “The Question of Equality” and Michael Kasino’s “Pay It No Mind” — inspired by the dual protagonists. France wrote that he is so encouraging of Gossett’s homage to Johnson that he introduced she and her collaborators to his “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” financier. “It is wrong that our projects have not received equal attention.”
Not only does France “admire” Gossett, but also he wrote, “I witnessed the obstacles she faces as an artist who is also a transgender woman of color, obstacles that have been far less onerous for me in pursuit of my craft. Racism and transphobia are hideous cancers.”
A 2013 Best Documentary Oscar nominee for “How to Survive a Plague,” France adapted that film into his fourth book, subtitled, “The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS.” He lost his boyfriend to the disease in 1991. Netflix, via a spokesperson, said they have no comment. Gossett has not yet respond to IndieWire’s emails.
France also wrote “Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal,” which became a Showtime film starring Ted Danson, Christopher Plummer, Brian Dennehy and Ellen Burstyn.
“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Watch the trailer below.
This post has been updated.