Reina Gossett, a transgender filmmaker, writer and activist, has accused filmmaker David France of stealing work from her to create "The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson," which debuted Friday on Netflix.
Gossett alleges that France had access to and was inspired by a grant application she submitted while seeking funding for her own picture, "Happy Birthday, Marsha," with collaborator Sasha Wortzel.
France, however, says transgender activist Johnson was a friend and he’d been doing research and considering doing a project on her life and death for years.
Gossett wrote Saturday on Instagram, "[T]his 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 and reeling on how this movie came to be and make so much $ off our lives and ideas… 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."
Johnson is best known for helping jumpstart the Stonewall Riots of 1969 that gave birth to the modern LGBTQ rights movement. In July 1992, the body of the firebrand — a fixture in New York’s Village scene — was found in the Hudson River. Police said her death was a suicide, but many doubted that conclusion. "The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson" follows the work of trans activist Victoria Cruz to solve the case herself.
Gossett's post prompted trans activist and author Janet Mock to voice her support of Gossett, noting on social media that the allegations were another example of “white cis folk” profiting off the lives of trans people of color.
"These are our stories, our lives and we will not be erased or silenced," Mock wrote.
France responded to the allegations via Twitter Saturday and posted a more complete statement on his film's website shortly after.
"I owe a debt to those who have kept Marsha’s story alive over the years. My creative work builds on theirs. But it is it’s [sic] own scholarship," the statement reads.
France went on to note that he knew Johnson and covered her death while he was a writer for the Village Voice. He said he's always wanted to help tell her story. He said that he did hear about Gossett and Wortzel's project, but it didn't come until he was years-deep into research for his film.
"I reached out to [Gossett] about sharing resources, at which point she informed me she was working on a scripted short film about Marsha and Sylvia [Rivera] in the hours leading up to Stonewall, which is not at all the focus of my film," the statement continued. "These stories seemed different enough to me that there was no cause for concern. ... It seemed there was room in the landscape for both films with very different stories, methods and approaches. As part of a sincere desire to see their film completed, I connected Gossett, her co-director Sasha Wortzel, and their producers with our funder."
For Gossett and other aspiring filmmakers, the perception remains that privilege and access based on one’s maleness, whiteness, and cis-ness opens doors. France addressed these concerns in his statement saying he admires Gossett’s work and “witnessed the obstacles she faces as an artist who is also a transgender woman of color, obstacles that have been far less onerous” for him.
As Hollywood grapples with calls for greater inclusion in front of and behind the camera, many activists have pointed out the need to address (conscious and unconscious) biases related to how some stories see the light of day and others don’t.
“Racism and transphobia are hideous cancers. By joining my voice to the campaign for Marsha’s justice, I hoped to amplify that call, not complicate it, and to bring whatever attention I could draw to this history and those who defend it,” France said. “But I have complicated it nonetheless. I know that history-telling is not a zero sum equation. But funding and cultural power can be. It is wrong that our projects have not received equal attention.”
Netflix declined to comment.