Column: Owning Stonewall

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Photo: Philippe Bosse / Roadside Attractions

Roland Emmerich is a filmmaker who is best-known for directing blockbusters like “Independence Day” (1996) and “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004). For his latest project Emmerich, who is openly gay, filmed a dramatization of the most important event in LGBT history, the Stonewall Uprising.

Emmerich is not the first one to make a movie about Stonewall: In 1995 the late Nigel Finch, also gay, directed his own “Stonewall.” But where Finch’s Stonewall was largely ignored (except by Jack Nichols, who blasted it in GayToday.com) Emmerich’s “Stonewall” has caused controversy, boycotts and divisions in the community even before its September 25 premiere.

What happened?

Like most people, I have yet to see Emmerich’s “Stonewall.” I have read articles and press releases; looked at publicity photos; and viewed the trailer. Like most so-called “historical” films, “Stonewall” twists the facts for the sake of a good story. It centers around the fictional Danny Winter (Jeremy Irvine), a wholesome, corn-fed Kansas white boy who is kicked out of his house for being gay and moves to New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Centering a story around a small town boy in the big city has been used in other films, including the first “Stonewall,” to introduce the audience to an unfamiliar topic. (The presumption being that movie goers know little or nothing about Greenwich Village in 1969.) That Danny is white and male is no surprise, since white males (and their dates) are the target audience that studios usually go after.

Needless to say, I disagree with this convention. There are many heroic figures who are female and/or non-white; and Hollywood does all of us a disfavor by ignoring their stories. And the Stonewall Uprising is the pivotal event in our collective history. Telling the Stonewall story through the eyes of a young, cute, white, cisgender male from the heartland denies the experiences of the people of color, trans people and women who took part in that event.

There is much dispute about the racial, gender and class make-up of the Stonewall Rioters; in other words, who “owns” Stonewall. David Carter, who wrote the best book about the Uprising (2004’s “Stonewall”) noted that “the group most responsible for the success of the riots” were “young, homeless homosexuals and … most were Caucasian; few were Latino; almost none were transvestites or transsexuals; most were effeminate; and a fair number came from middle-class families.”

On the other hand, many activists give credit to lesbians like Storme De Larverie, who threw the first brick at the cops (the movie gives the honors to Danny) or trans women of color like Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

“The Stonewall Riots … started on the backs of working class African-American and Latino queers,” Rev. Irene Monroe wrote in advocate.com. “These brown and black LGBTQ people are not only absent from the photos of that night but have been bleached from its written history.”

If Emmerich expected his “Stonewall” trailer would draw queer moviegoers to the theaters, he was very much mistaken. The trailer put Danny front and center, relegating minority characters to the sidelines. The Gay-Straight Alliance Network launched a petition and called for a boycott of the film, calling it a “whitewash.”

“Do not throw money at the capitalistic industry that fails to recognize true s/heros. Do not support a film that erases our history. Do not watch “Stonewall.” A MoveOn petition agreed, adding that “a historically accurate film about the Stonewall Riots would center [on] the stories of queer and gender-noncomforming [sic] people of color like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. Not relegate them to background characters in the service of a white cis-male fictional protagonist.”

Martin Duberman, who wrote the other book about the Riots (1993’s “Stonewall”), agreed with the protesters, though he disputed the idea that any one person or group can claim ownership of the riots. On the other hand, author/activist Larry Kramer voiced his support for Emmerich and his film.

Emmerich, Irvine and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz were quick to defend their movie, promising skeptics that “it deeply honors the real-life activists who were there” including Johnson, Rivera and Ray Castro.

I will reserve my judgment until I see the movie. In the meantime, we can do our part for LGBT history by helping finance “Happy Birthday, Marsha!,” a movie that places Johnson and Rivera where they belong, at the center of the story.

Visit HappyBirthdayMarsha.com for details. In his “Stonewall,” Roland Emmerich tells his Stonewall story. Let us help others tell their Stonewall stories.


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