“Happy Birthday, Marsha!” offers imagined moments before the Stonewall Riots

“Happy Birthday, Marsha!” offers imagined moments before the Stonewall Riots

What happened at the Stonewall Inn during the early morning hours of June 28, 1969?

This question has been asked a staggering number of times and produced an equally staggering number of answers. But, among the many different responses, one aspect remains consistent: Marsha P. Johnson, a trans artist and activist, helped instigate an anti-policing riot that inspired a nation-wide gay rights movement.

In recent years, there’s been a push among trans activists and allies to reassert the central role Johnson played at Stonewall and other critical junctions in the struggle for LGBTQ+ liberation. “Happy Birthday, Marsha!,” a short piece of speculative fiction, created and starring trans artists, is one such effort. Now streaming and airing on ALL ARTS, the film blends found material with scripted narration to re-imagine Johnson’s life in the hours leading up to the uprising. It’s a radical, fantastical depiction, one created in homage to Johnson’s legacy as the co-founder of STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and other liberation groups.

In an interview with ALL ARTS, Sasha Wortzel, who co-wrote, produced and directed the film with Tourmaline, said the decision to blend archival footage with invented narration was borne out of practical and creative considerations. She recalled being inspired by the work of Dr. Saidiya Hartman, a scholar who creates fictional narratives based largely on archival research.

“We asked ourselves how we could make a film about Marsha built off of archival research and traces without reproducing the violent, discerning system of archives themselves,” Wortzel said. “Using fantasy and an imaginary realm was our strategy.”

The resulting 15-minute drama chronicles Johnson (played by Mya Taylor) and Sylvia Rivera (Eve Lindley) as they prepare for Johnson’s birthday party (which, factually, was in August, not June) and provides an interior view into the traumas the vanguards faced as a result of anti-gay and anti-trans laws. From that vantage point, viewers are perhaps better able to grasp why the violent Stonewall riots were a necessary outcome following years of targeted harassment by the New York City Police Department.

“So much of this film is about the interior life of Marsha, what’s she’s thinking, dreaming, or seeing that no one else does,” Wortzel said. “We want our audience to get lost in the plush imagination of Marsha, the way she created worlds and dreamed beyond what she was given. We want them to see that small acts of unruliness and refusal can completely transform the world.”

Wortzel said the team began working on the film in 2011, after they met those who knew Rivera and Johnson and realized the depths of trans erasure from mainstream Stonewall retellings. Because they had trouble securing funding, the creators eventually wound up reaching out to the community for support, raising more than $25,000 through Kickstarter.

“People donated a lot of time and resources because they were deeply affected by Marsha,” she said. “People met us for drinks, took us into their homes, offered their music, showed us their home videos and blessed us with hilarious and moving stories.”

The creators soon found they had a treasure trove of rare material available to them, saved by those who realized the importance of preserving non-sanitized versions of trans and queer history.

“We had a lot of discussions about the deep erasure of the history of pride — how it started off as a radical action connected to anti-policing and prison abolition, that transgender women of color helped to organize, and that most people knew nothing of its origins,” she explained. “We wondered what we could do together about this as activists, storytellers, and artists. We were really blessed to be sharing stories of a community we are already part of, to have so many relationships with people who loved Marsha and her friends.”

When asked what the legacy of Stonewall meant to her after working so intensely on this project, Wortzel said it served as a personal reminder of beauty, power and imagination within the LGBTQ+ community.

“We need to keep dreaming and imagining new possibilities for the world,” she said. “True liberation isn’t possible unless we are fighting for everyone’s liberation. That you don’t have to have it all together to have a tremendous impact on the world.”

Top Image: Mya Taylor as Marsha P. Johnson in "Happy Birthday, Marsha!"