Movies

Home Movies

Whitewashed And Stole: Marsha P. Johnson, Reina Gossett, and David France


On Friday, October 6th, I settled in for a night of Netflix. But this night of Netflix would be epic, because Netflix had just released the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, directed by David France. The film follows the investigation into pioneering sex working black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson’s 1992 death by members of the New York Anti-Violence project. It also chronicles the trial of the murderer of 21-year-old Islan Nettles, a young black trans-woman who was killed on August 17, 2013. After watching the documentary, I grabbed my phone and went on Facebook, and immediately saw a screenshot of a disturbing post on France’s documentary by Reina Gossett on her Instagram.

Reina Gossett is a black trans woman activist and writer as well as the producer of Happy Birthday Marsha. On her Instagram that day, Gossett spilled the tea and accused David France, a white cis-gay man, of using and being inspired by a grant she and Sasha Worzel wrote to Kalamazoo/Arcus Foundation Social Justice Center for a movie about Johnson—France volunteered at the foundation at the time. Gossett also accused him of plagiarizing their language and stealing their years of research on Johnson and Sylvia Rivera’s community organization STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and having her video of Rivera’s revolutionary and mainstream-gay-movement-critical 1973 “ y’all better quiet down” speech at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally removed from Vimeo. Gossett began her Instagram post by writing, “this week while I’m borrowing money to pay my rent, david france is releasing his multimillion dollar netflix deal on marsha p johnson.”

Author and activist Janet Mock hit to Twitter and tweeted out the screenshots of Gossett’s Instagram post. Mock stated that “[f]ilmmaker David France released a Netflix doc Friday about Marsha P. Johnson. It is based on Reina Gossett’s work”. Mock’s tweet garnered 1000s of retweets and likes, as well as a comment by France, which he had to write on an Apple note and screenshot to Twitter. (Sometimes 140 characters isn’t enough to explain your white privilege and entitlement.) France also released a further statement responding to Gossett’s Instagram post on The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson website. He states that he was friends with Marsha for a minute and he wanted to do a documentary about her around the time of her death but he had to focus on the AIDS epidemic at the time. He also claims that his work was not stolen from or inspired by Gossett’s research and film making. He goes on to acknowledge his privilege as a white cis gay male.

Emotional Truth: Cheyenne Picardo, Director of Remedy

Cheyenne Picardo, director of the independent film Remedy.
Cheyenne Picardo, director of the independent film Remedy. (photo by Rose Callahan)

Cheyenne Picardo wrote and directed Remedy, a film based on her experiences as a professional switch that is currently making the rounds at film festivals internationally. Her movie is an unflinching look at what it’s like to work in a Manhattan ‘house dungeon,’ in which dommes, subs, and switches work shifts for the owner, who in turn provides clients, space, and equipment. I worked as a pro-switch in a Manhattan house myself and spoke with Picardo via email about Remedy and her experiences in the sex industry.

You’re open about the fact that Remedy is based on your time working in a house. As someone who did the same job, I have to say I was blown away by just how true-to-life the movie was. In telling this story, was realism a major concern for you?

It was paramount. When I first started working on the script, back in 2007, I was preoccupied with recreating, with absolute accuracy, every detail of sessions that had happened a good three years before. Because I was producing my own film as part of my MFA thesis, I never saw the need to format the screenplay in the traditional way, so it read like a long journal entry with dialogue.

Then, a year after writing Remedy, I began to shoot the film, and the limitations of the script started to become obvious. Clients were rewritten according to the best actors I could find. Some of my dialogue was scrapped entirely because it was so laced with narcotic haze—I wrote the first draft while bedridden with a spiral fracture. Some scenes were rewritten the night before shooting, often with my assistant director Melissa Roth or the actors who would be playing the parts. For other scenes, like ones involving heavy bondage or corporal, my only direction was to hit a few dialogue points and dramatic beats but otherwise talk normally, and I shaped the acting and language as we shot. I think these methods enhanced the realism tremendously in the final product.

Whatever changes I made to “my story” were OK—as long as I retained emotional truth, and as long as what I depicted was either something I had experienced firsthand or something that a friend in the industry had told me over takeout while we sat the overnight shifts watching gonzo porn or Charlie Rose.

Ultimately—and I’m very free with this—the biggest “lies” in the film are these: I did have a dungeon boyfriend, but we didn’t actually lip-lock; the manager is not based on any single person; and the co-workers are meant to represent certain types of women who work in dungeons, not caricature the actual people I worked with.

Strippers vs. Werewolves 2012

KAL8079_NightoftheDemons_DVD_V2.indd
At the age of five, growing up in in the desert six hours from the nearest town and hospital, I had recurrent nightmares about a hirsute, razor-toothed werewolf with glowing red eyes. I haven’t ever really gotten over those dreams, so at 29, I can still get a little too spooked at all things werebeast. That doesn’t stop me from watching supernatural horror, though.

While engaging in self care, I want to stream and watch something. Sifting through films that I’ve already seen, that I have no interest in, and—what the hell?

Strippers vs. Werewolves? Oh baby! Why has nobody told me about this?

The Great Happiness Space (2006)

all photos courtesy of the author

One of my favorite male sex worker movies is The Great Happiness Space. The documentary film from 2006 follows the work lives of the staff members of Stylish Club, Rakkyo, one of the top host clubs in Osaka, Japan. The film was shot at a time when male host clubs were becoming more popular and attracting increased media attention. I was interested in the film as I had spent some time between 1998 and 2007 working in hostess clubs in Tokyo.

Friends back home had been indignant when I explained to them the nature of a hostess’ work. By performing a subservient role, they had argued, I was enforcing gender oppression, and shouldn’t I feel bad about that? I was curious to see the flipside, expecting to see a subversion of the gender roles played out in the hostess club where the woman dotes on the male customer. Perhaps I was looking for something to point at to say: Look: it’s OK; the industry caters for women too. I came away from the film thinking more about women in the sex industry, however, than men.

Sleeping Beauty (2011)

It's merciful to sleep through this, trust me.

Does anyone need a reason to be sexually reckless? I’m not sure. For much of my adult life, I’ve been sexually reckless (or careless, or heedless—take your pick) and I don’t know that a camera following me around would have picked up on any explanations as to why. But we expect more from art than we expect from life, which is why Sleeping Beauty, an Australian film about a young woman who will submit to anything for money, is such a disappointment.

Main character Lucy (Emily Browning) is like a lot of college students: pretty, promiscuous, apathetic, and broke. She holds a variety of odd jobs, including cafe janitor, human guinea pig, and Girl Who Operates A Xerox Machine, yet she never makes enough to pay her rent. Her family situation is uncertain, though we are let in on the existence of an equally broke astrologer mother. We have no indication of what she’s studying in school, what matters to her in life, or who matters to her, except for an alcoholic peer named Birdman whom she brings groceries and pointless chat. She and Birdman go back a few years. We know there’s an unfulfilled promise of a romance between them because Birdman says as much, but that’s about it. When we’re first introduced to him, Lucy casually makes him a bowl of vodka and cereal as they banter with each other in affected tones (“And how are you?” “Oh, I’m very well.”) It’s so dumb.