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UPDATED: Roland Emmerich’s ‘Stonewall’ Has A White/Cis Hero, And That’s A Problem

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UPDATE: Roland Emmerich, Jeremy Irvine and Jon Robin Baitz have responded; see end of article.

Roland Emmerich — director of such blockbusters like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow — has made Stonewall, a film about the Stonewall Riots, the 1969 LGBTQ uprising against police harassment which many folks mark as the start of the modern-day LGBT rights movement. We got our first glimpse of Emmerich’s Stonewall when the first trailer dropped on August 4, and if you know your LGBTQ history, something might seem a bit off about it.

Take a look:

The trailer gives the impression that Danny — some white, middle-class, cisgender dude who didn’t actually exist — started the Stonewall Riots by throwing a brick through a window.

But many accounts state that the actual Stonewall Riots began when Stormé DeLarverie, a half-Black butch lesbian (who doesn’t appear in the film), got hit in the head by a policeman and called out to the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?!” In response, Marsha P. Johnson, a Black drag queen (who will be played by cisgender actor Otoja Abit) and Sylvia Rivera, a transgender woman (who doesn’t appear in the film at all) are credited with starting the actual riots by throwing bottles at police.

Yet in the trailer, it’s Danny (played by Jeremy Irvine, a white, cis-gendered male) who seemingly throws the riot’s first brick (metaphorically and literally). From the look of it, it’s Danny’s fight and his rage that kicks off the riots and, in effect, the start of the modern LGBT rights movement.

To be fair, it’s entirely possible that Danny’s brick-throwing scene might mark some other point of the riot and not its beginning; perhaps Marsha P. Washington will get her due credit as the one who set things off. 

Also, the trailer says “inspired by a true story,” which is usually code for “We looked at a thing in history and decided to make up something that sounds like it could have happened,” as opposed to “Based on a true story,” which generally means “We fudged some things, but included a lot of what actually happened.” That said, most folks will watch the film and accept its version of events unquestioningly rather than argue semantics, so it’s important to get it right.

You can go back to material from the time to see that drag queens and genderqueers did indeed actively participate in the riot, despite claims from people like gay historian Wayne R. Dyer that transgender people were not involved, mostly because transgender as an identity didn’t exist at that time.

As for the director, Emmerich has been quoted as saying: “I think we represented [the diversity] very well… We have drag queens, lesbians, we have everything in the film because we wanted to portray a broader image of what ‘gay’ means.”

When Emmerich calls Stonewall “gay”, he’s right only in the sense that people said “gay” in the ’60s to refer to all manner non-hetero and/or gender-nonconforming people rather than just male homosexuals. But the Stonewall Inn was open to all comers: transpeople, drag queens, homeless youth, gay and lesbian, and all races. By referring to Stonewall (both the riots and the bar) as merely “gay”, it’s clear Emmerich doesn’t get it. And, of course, his trailer doesn’t instill confidence that the “everything” Emmerich refers to will be anything more than window-dressing for a story about how a white, cisgender man saved the day.

Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Washington, Stonewall riots

An image about Stonewall taken from the blog Transgender Planet

The outcry against the possible white- and cis-washing of this pivotal part of LGBTQ history has been gaining traction online. Here’s just a few reactions below:

Amy Walker at Planet Transgender:

Changing history like that is wrong.  Hollywood and Roland Emmerich are trying to take away the accomplishments of these two women, and others like them, and give it to white men, yet again.  Not only is it historically innaccurate but its totally god damn disrespectful…

For those of you who might not think that it’s such a big deal, that it’s just Hollywood tweaking a story to make it work on film a little better, shut the hell up!  It is important.  If you went to see the film Selma and they’d cut out Martin Luther King Jr. and instead had the march being led by Mickey Rourke you’d probably think that there’s something wrong there…

Hollywood have taken our moment of major historical significance and told us that the only way people will care is with a white man as the hero, that the only way change really happens is if a white man fights for it.  Hollywood’s hero complex at its absolute worst.

Monica Roberts at TransGriot:

Umm, naw boo boo kitty, that’s not how it went down, and as long as Miss Major is alive, I’m not letting that fictionalized whitewashed trans free Stonewall narrative even gain a foothold because it’s a crime against history and disrepectful to Sylvia, who i had the pleasure of meeting in May 2000.

The reality coming from multiple witnesses to the original event say that it was Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, butch lesbians and other gender variant persons of color who jumped off the riot in 1969 while the Fire Island gays were still cowering in their closets.

Even Ray Hill, who is one of our Houston human rights icons and who was one of the early Big Four Gay leaders along with Harvey Milk, Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, has told me that Stonewall was a trans and gender variant POC led uprising.

Teresa Jusino at The Mary Sue:

But the biggest problem with this is that Stonewall is attempting to depict history while simultaneously erasing the fact that the riots were started by trans women of color.

This isn’t surprising… Often it feels like, even in the world of marginalized people, some people are more marginalized than others, and organizations like the Human Rights Campaign have come under fire in recent years for “yielding to the politics of respectability,” and throwing members of the community who aren’t gay, white, affluent cisgender men under the bus when it suits them.

There’s also a petition urging people to boycott Stonewall in protest of its seeming exclusion of transwomen of color. Unicorn Booty reached out to Emmerich, Joey King (the actress who plays Danny’s sister Phoebe), Jon Robin Baitz (the screenwriter) and Michael Roban (an executive producer) for comment, but we’ve received no reply as of yet.

Whether or not you see Stonewall is up to you, but we owe it to the real people who fought so hard for queer rights to read about them and share their real stories — don’t let them be forgotten.

 

UPDATE: Director Roland Emmerich, star Jeremy Irvine, and scriptwriter Jon Robin Baitz have responded to the claims that Stonewall has a problem with its representation of trans people and people of color.

Emmerich said:

When I first learned about the Stonewall Riots through my work with the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, I was struck that the circumstances that lead to LGBT youth homelessness today are pretty much the same as they were 45 years ago. The courageous actions of everyone who fought against injustice in 1969 inspired me to tell a compelling, fictionalized drama of those days centering on homeless LGBT youth, specifically a young midwestern gay man who is kicked out of his home for his sexuality and comes to New York, befriending the people who are actively involved in the events leading up to the riots and the riots themselves. I understand that following the release of our trailer there have been initial concerns about how this character’s involvement is portrayed, but when this film – which is truly a labor of love for me – finally comes to theaters, audiences will see that it deeply honors the real-life activists who were there — including Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Ray Castro — and all the brave people who sparked the civil rights movement which continues to this day. We are all the same in our struggle for acceptance.

Jeremy Irvine said:

To anyone with concerns about the diversity of the #‎StonewallMovie‬. I saw the movie for the first time last week and can assure you all that it represents almost every race and section of society that was so fundamental to one of the most important civil rights movements in living history. Marsha P Johnson is a major part of the movie, and although first hand accounts of who threw the first brick in the riots vary wildly, it is a fictional black transvestite character played by the very talented @vlad_alexis who pulls out the first brick in the riot scenes. My character is adopted by a group of street kids whilst sleeping rough in New York. In my opinion, the story is driven by the leader of this gang played by @jonnybeauchamp who gives an extraordinary performance as a Puerto Rican transvestite struggling to survive on the streets. Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ character represents the Mattachine Society, who were at the time a mostly white and middle class gay rights group who stood against violence and radicalism. I felt incredibly nervous taking on this role knowing how important the subject matter is to so many people but Roland Emmerich is one of the most sensitive and heartfelt directors I’ve worked with and I hope that, as an ensemble, we have not only done such an important story justice but also made a good movie as well.
Jeremy

Jon Robin Baitz said:

 I hope the exchange below is a useful part of the discussion around the marketing, and making of Stonewall, which is being decried by many who have not or will not see it based on a trailer (sigh), which I saw only when others did, online. I have tremendous respect for Roland Emmerich, for producing and directing and paying for a movie which no studio would give a cent to. Including the studios he has made a great deal of money for. I admire his reach and ambition, and his intentions, which are utterly uncynical, totally honorable. His film making skills are realized here to a degree we have not seen before, and his sole goal was to honor the heroes of that time. AND I also have tremendous empathy for those who think they are being erased, removed and made once more invisible. I really do not think that’s what this movie is, and as I say below, I could be blind, because when you make a film, the chaos, the uncertainty, the conditions ‘on the ground’ can lead to a kind of ‘snow blindness’ to use an ironic phrase. But such an erasure would be heart breaking to me, as a man of principle, who tries to grow wiser and broader in my vision of what the world should be. The movie is about an awakening, one young man’s awakening to the reality of what it means to be ‘the other’. It is not the definitive story of a revolution; that film has yet to be made – but its a humanist’s dramatization of how the disenfranchised are empowered by rage, and it traces a point in an arc towards justice that began with the Mattachine Society, continued through the bravery of a group of psychiatrists who refused to accept the pathologizing of homosexuality, and continues today with the fight for marriage equality and is now starting to focus on trans rights. It’s a point on an arc, a moment, a story — the prejudgements are understandable to me, and there’s not much I can do except be honest about my role in making the movie, and our intentions. I don’t think the film needs defending, really, but I am reminded of Jesse Jackson’s words, when reflecting on some of his mistakes: To quote: — “My head – so limited in its finitude; my heart, which is boundless in its love for the human family. I am not a perfect servant. I am a public servant doing my best against the odds. As I develop and serve, be patient. God is not finished with me yet…” I stand before people who are angered by a film they have yet to see, and ask that their open hearts allow that the film be judged on its own merits, and not by the demands of a marketing department, because marketing is based entirely in fear, whereas art is based in rage and hope and fire. American film (sigh) somewhere in between – nervously shifting its weight between commerce and something greater, and stumbling all the time.