Barnard’s Activist-In-Residence Reina Gossett Accuses ‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’ Creator Of Stealing Her Work
Written by Hannah Zwick
Earlier this month, transgender filmmaker and activist Reina Gossett took to Instagram to allege that David France, creator of the Netflix documentary “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson”, used her research to make his film. The post begins, “this week, while I’m borrowing money to pay rent, David France is releasing his multimillion dollar Netflix deal on Marsha P. Johnson.” France’s film examines the death of Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans woman known for her activism and role in the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Gossett has spent years researching and archiving content about Johnson and her fellow activist Sylvia Rivera; research she would later use to create the documentary Happy Birthday, Marsha! with collaborator Sasha Wortzel.
A statement released by the co-directors reads, “In the spring of 2013, we submitted a video application to the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership seeking funding for our documentary. This is the moment we believe David France first learned about our film. The Executive Director of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, Jaime Grant, spoke to France about our project, urging him to put his support behind a trans-led film that was in progress. As Jaime Grant notes, not only did he choose not to, he said he was the right one for the project. Grant states:… ‘I told David about Reina and Sasha’s project and urged him to support it since they had been working on it for years. In my mind, in terms of the social justice leadership aspect of the work — Reina’s life experience and activism closely mirrored Sylvia and Marsha’s lives and work and hers was a project where trans women of color were telling their own stories. David responded by saying that the ‘right person should make it’ — meaning him.’”
The statement continues, “In 2014, Arcus Foundation at the Sundance Institute awarded France funding to develop a documentary. Then titled Sylvia and Marsha, his film had an alarmingly similar logline to ours: ‘Sylvia & Marsha celebrates the first modern transgender activists who together, co-founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and set in motion a profound cultural shift carried on today by trans people asserting their rights.’ France then hired our Queer Art mentor Kimberly Reed as a producer on his own Marsha film. Reed had intimate access to our research, process, contacts and ideas. We met with Reed and expressed our alarm about her working with France. Reed is credited as a producer on France’s film.”
Around this time, Gossett and Wortzel grew frustrated by the lack of progress being made on their film. They decided to make a narrative short, also titled Happy Birthday, Marsha!, and launch a kickstarter to fund the documentary.
“While we were editing the film,” Gossett and Wortzel write in the statement, “journalist Diana Tourjee connected us with Darrel Wilson, a film professor at NYU. He had footage of Marsha that he and his friend had shot in his basement in 1991, and he wanted to share it with us because of the work we were doing. This footage had never been made available to the public.” Wilson donated the footage for use in their documentary, which they showed in a presentation of their work at the Cooper Union. France was in attendance that night, and the statement claims, “Following our presentation, France… sought out the archival footage we had shared from Wilson. It appears in his own film. Clearly France has seen and learned from our work.”
France has denied all accusations, and has responded with a statement on twitter. He writes, “I began researching Marsha’s life in 1992 as a reporter for the Village Voice. She was a friend of mine.” Addressing Gossett and Wortzel’s film directly, he states, “I learned of [Happy Birthday, Marsha] well into our work and reached out, worried we were duplicating efforts. We were not, as OUT has noted… Marsha’s and Sylvia’s inspiring stories have been told before and must be told again with many voices, especially by trans women who have an even harder time raising funds than we did. That’s why we fully support Reina and Sasha’s beautiful film.” In another tweet, he writes, “I stole nothing, and paid all artist collaborators. Reina thinks her work is in my film, but when she sees it she will know.”
In response to France’s film and denial of the accusations against him, Gossett and Wortzel write, “Though France may wish the unfolding story would focus on copyright laws and ownership to prove he did nothing wrong, ultimately we believe no one owns Marsha’s story. In fact the whole notion of someone owning Marsha is part of the same violent ideology our work seeks to challenge. This is not about owning people’s stories, histories, or about copyright/legal ownership. This is about the systems and individuals who profit off of the work of trans women of color, while we remain uncredited and erased… David France’s actions have implications beyond just us— about who has access to resources to tell stories, and how this can reinforce the very power structures that our heroes like Marsha P Johnson worked to break down. France isn’t the only filmmaker who has seen an opportunity to collaborate with directly affected people but passed up that opportunity in favor of personal gain. This is the cycle of extraction and erasure we wish to interrupt. These are the conditions that create a world where trans women of color may have visibility, but are not supported to tell our own stories. We are dedicated to creating art that celebrates the most vulnerable people in our communities and neither erases nor attempts to make their lives more palatable. We use art to transform oppression. Marsha did that too.”
Reina Gossett is a graduate of Columbia University and the current Activist-In-Residence at Barnard’s Center for Research on Women, a position she has held since 2014.