The more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s one of the lessons you learn (again!) if you watch David France’s documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson and Damon Cardasis’ tender musical coming-of-age flick Saturday Church. Both set in New York City and focused on marginalized trans communities of color, they span close to fifty years.
France’s documentary, as its title suggests, is focused on one of the pivotal figures of the Stonewall riots. Marsha P. Johnson, along with her close friend and fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera, were at the forefront of the fight for LGBTQ rights in the latter half of the twentieth century. Both were fixtures of the West Village in New York, often hanging out by the Christopher Street pier where they could be seen making friends, picking up tricks, or enjoying a late night stroll. Using archival footage – Johnson’s then Hoboken roommate had plenty of home videos of his legendary friend – France sets out to tell her life story for all to know. But to do so he has to also tell the story of her death. In 1992, Marsha was found floating on the Hudson River by the pier. The NYPD quickly deemed it a suicide. They didn’t see the point of spending any resources on the death of one of the many trans girls who lined up the West Village streets. Her friends all knew there was more to the story.
And one person is set on looking for new clues on this cold case: trans activist and an active member of the New York City Anti-Violence Group, Puerto Rican Victoria Cruz. She wants Marsha’s file to be the last one she puts to rest before she retires. Soon, witness accounts, phone records, and Marsha’s own paper trail lead Cruz to follow various leads – might Marsha have been killed by the police? by the mob? by an angry John?
Just as he did with his Oscar-nominated doc, How to Survive a Plague, France knows that Marsha’s story and Cruz’s investigation are tools with which to tell a larger story. Everything that happened to Marsha and Sylvia (who ended up homeless, living on the pier following Marsha’s death and evicted by the NYPD when the city decided to clean up and rehabilitate the West Side piers) continues to happen today. Trans women continue to be kicked out of their homes and assaulted on the streets.
Look no further than Saturday Church. In Cardasis’ feature film debut, we get to see the kinds of sanctuaries and support groups that the young trans community in New York – made up of mostly black and brown kids – have created for themselves. Fourteen-year-old Ulysses (Luka Kain) has just lost his father and his working mother leaves him and his brother in the care of their aunt Rose (Regina Taylor). Rose rules the house with an iron fist and has no time for Ulysses’ desire to wear women’s clothing. Looking to find more people like him Ulysses heads downtown to the West Village and in those updated piers near where Marsha’s body was once found, he finds a group of fabulous queer kids eager to help him. Among them are Ebony (MJ Rodriguez), Dijon (Indya Moore), Heaven (Alexia Garcia), and the impossibly charming Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez) who catches Ulysses’s eyes.
Through them Ulysses begins unlocking a new world of infinite possibilities (heels! lipstick! vogueing!) even as he learns firsthand of their struggles. None still live with their families – Heaven tells him that she’d spent three weeks in the hospital after her father beat her up, while others took to the streets when they were kicked out by parents who wouldn’t accept them as they are. Many still sell their bodies to stay afloat in the city. When Aunt Rose finds a pair of fabulous spiked heels in Ulysses’ bedroom, she tells him to never come back. His mom spends the next few days frantically looking for him as he navigates New York City as yet another homeless queer kid of color. Scored by a number of original songs by Nathan Larson, Saturday Church is a stirring musical that’s both hopeful and realistic. It doesn’t sugarcoat the prejudice Heaven, Ebony and Dijon have had to overcome (and continue to deal with). In fact, the film’s title refers to a weekly support group slash community center for trans and queer kids who may need food, clothes, and just a safe space to hang out.
Both films celebrate trans lives and treat them with the dignity they deserve. They also are a call to arms to get informed and learn about the many obstacles many young trans kids face when trying to live their truth. They ask audiences to empathize with their protagonists and state boldly that #TransLivesMatter.