Plagiarism does not deserve discourse

At issue: The invitation of Marsha P. Johnson director Steve France

Our take: Artistic integrity isn’t up for debate 

Last month, Reina Gossett, an African-American transgender activist and filmmaker, accused director David France of stealing research from her for his documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. France is a cisgender white man. The controversy surrounding the movie, which focuses on the titular African-American drag queen and gay rights icon, has been documented by sites like Teen Vogue, Jezebel, Slate, and IndieWire.

So why did curator Anna Feder and the Department of Visual and Media Arts choose to screen the movie for Emerson’s Bright Lights series on Tuesday, especially when 90 of the 140 planned screenings this month were cancelled? Moreover, why was France invited to speak at the screening?

The screening has raised questions about who has the right to tell stories of marginalized people, a topic that has been broached and rehashed many times. But in a case like this, the right to tell stories is not all that’s at stake. Emerson invited an accused plagiarist to a school dominated by artists. Even without definitive proof (though there is some pretty damning evidence), France’s actions should be condemned by any organization invested in artistic or academic integrity. At a school where students who plagiarize are subject to immediate suspension, the message put out through his invitation is unacceptable. What he is accused of doing is morally wrong, even before diving into the issues of identity inseparable from the rest of the matter.

The fact that the accused plagiarist invited by the school is a cis white man who allegedly stole the work of a trans woman of color presents a whole other offense in itself. Although public discourse is essential in sharing ideas and opinions, it’s hard to ignore how this screening presented France with yet another platform to defend himself. Unlike other organizations, which canceled their screenings of the film out of solidarity with Gossett, Emerson went through with its decision to invite France to speak at a school known for its supposed support of the LGBTQ community. Given the abundant coverage his response to the accusations has already received, providing France with yet another stage to speak about his perspective of the situation is not so much enlightening as it is misguided and frankly uninformative. This screening only further elevated France above Gossett, thus amplifying his already-loud voice in the public realm above that of a marginalized artist.

While France was not offered any monetary compensation for speaking at the screening, he did profit from the success of The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, which, besides allegations of plagiarism, largely trampled the potential success of Gossett’s documentary work on the subject, which predates France’s film. Furthermore, the fact that France was not able to defend her position—although she was invited to attend the screening—furthers the notion that the allegations against France don’t matter. And we certainly don’t hold Gossett’s absence against her, seeing as most artists might skip engaging in a public argument with an individual who plagiarized their work; especially if they had already spoken out against the perpetrator on multiple platforms.

Given the weight behind Gossett’s allegations, Emerson’s screening should have been cancelled. At the very least, France’s invitation should have been rescinded. Over 60 percent of the scheduled screenings were cancelled, so Emerson would not have been in the minority had we followed suit. If Gossett had also agreed to attend the screening and lend a voice to the other side of the argument, there might have been a more balanced discussion. However, in her absence, the screening ultimately served as another promotional opportunity for France. The college’s decision to invite France to speak may have been well-intended, but ultimately France got the platform, and Gossett did not.