Did the Director of the Marsha P. Johnson Netflix Doc Steal a Black Trans Filmmaker’s Work?

Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson in David France’s Netflix documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (Netflix)
Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson in David France’s Netflix documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (Netflix)

Accusations against David France, the award-winning director of the new Netflix documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, have been gaining steam in the last week. At the center of the growing controversy is a transgender woman of color, activist and filmmaker Reina Gossett, who claims that France lifted her work in making his documentary about the trans icon.

Gossett has received high-profile support from prominent trans activist Janet Mock, who has been spreading word of Gossett’s work on her own social media accounts. Now, in a truly messy turn of events, one of France’s former archivists has come forward to validate Gossett’s claims that her research influenced the Netflix documentary and that it went uncredited.

Kamran Shahraray, an archival assistant for France during the summer of 2016, released a statement confirming that his hard drives contained Gossett’s entire Vimeo collection.


Shahraray’s account was published and confirmed by Mother Jones:

As someone “who knows the archives better than anyone else here” by David’s own admission, Reina’s account confirms many suspicions that had come up for me whilst going through the archival footage and research. Reina’s entire Vimeo was on the hard drives, down to the exact resolution and clip length and her name appeared throughout other materials. Based on what I have seen, undoubtedly someone at some point made heavy usage of her work and research, and to say this didn’t happen is a bold-faced lie which flies in the face of all available evidence.

France told Mother Jones that Gossett’s videos were among several Vimeo channels he and his team looked at during their research process. But the filmmaker insists that not only did Gossett not hold a copyright for the archival footage of Johnson, but the same footage appeared elsewhere.

“I’m afraid that Kamran misunderstood the process of research and documentary filmmaking,” France told Mother Jones. “The deeper question is, did we learn anything from finding those videos on her Vimeo page? And that answer is no.”


On Sunday, France wrote a lengthy response to Gossett’s allegations in a post on The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’s Facebook page. He explained the timeline of his film and his relationship to Gossett:

In 1992, the year that activist Marsha P. Johnson was killed, I was writing for the Village Voice covering AIDS and the general LGBTQ beat in New York City. Marsha had been a friend of mine, and her story fell to me to report. I started investigating right away, but with no active leads and the exploding AIDS crisis in New York, I let the story slip away. For years, my decision has haunted me.


France admitted that he owed “a debt” to Gossett and those like her who have tirelessly kept Johnson’s story alive. “My creative work builds on theirs,” Frances said. “But it is [its] own scholarship.”

The film Gossett has completed isn’t a documentary, but a scripted short film about Johnson’s day leading up to the historic Stonewall riots on June 28, 1969. Pariah star Mya Taylor plays Johnson.


France, who previously directed the award-winning documentary How to Survive a Plague, also acknowledged in his Facebook post that his place in the industry, as well as his identity a white, cisgender queer man, meant that he encountered fewer obstacles in his work than Gossett:

I admire Reina Gossett and look forward to her beautiful film. Alone among researchers, she has dedicated her work to the legacy of Marsha and early trans activism. Yet in terms of funding and support, 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. 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. 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. I re-double my commitment to bringing “Happy Birthday, Marsha” the attention and backing it needs and deserves, and hope that you will too.


The allegations have reignited discussion about who gets to tell the stories of marginalized people and communities—namely, who gets the resources necessary to put forward their stories, and who profits from them. Gossett opined about the struggles she’s endured trying to get her film made, noting in a recent op-ed in Teen Vogue that as France’s film launched, she was “struggling to pay rent.”

“It is this kind of violent extraction—of black life, trans life, queer life, disabled life, poor life—that leads so many of us to hold our ideas close to our chests; to never let the world see how brightly we shine,” Gossett wrote. “Until all of our ideas and lives are celebrated and given the resources we need and deserve, so much of our brilliance will remain hidden out of fear of our lives and labor being violated and appropriated.”


Read more at Mother Jones.

Staff writer, The Root.

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