HISTORY LESSON

Will There Be Rioting Over the ‘Stonewall’ Movie?

A trailer for Roland Emmerich’s film about the 1969 riots has drawn strong criticism for ‘whitewashing’ what happened. Will the final product be as bad as the preview?

If the makers of the movie Stonewall were hoping a wave of gay goodwill would sweep the movie into theaters upon its release, those hopes have been shattered.

Instead, a barrage of insults and catcalls has greeted the new trailer for the movie, which is out September 25.

The eponymous riots, which took place July 28, 1969, were kickstarted by people of color, hustlers, lesbians, drag queens, and transgender people after a police raid on the Greenwich Village bar. That’s apparently been transformed into a tale in which a young, hot, white cutie from a Middle American home with a Middle American porch comes to the big city with his bee-stung lips and form-fitting white T-shirts.

Soon he is leading the revolution in full Les Miz mode, as another hot guy who’s a quiet campaigning politico tries to caution him that sensible, safe protest is the way forward. (Put the rock down, son!)

And then there’s a Latino trans character who takes the Middle American hottie under his wing and of course falls in love with him, too, but white cutie-pie doesn’t feel the same way.

There are also villainous police officers with mustaches and truncheons to whack the queers with.

There’s a queer-bashing in a back alley that looks like an antiseptic studio lot.

There are sinister mob figures in fedoras.

And the gay extras of the Stonewall have gold lamé trousers and yellow shirts. Wild!

In short, everyone appears to have been bused in from Laughably Predictable Central Casting.

The story of Stonewall has, it seems, been transformed into the one of the most familiar American coming out stories: small-town cutie finds himself in big bad city.

On Thursday, director Roland Emmerich was stung into responding to his critics: Yes, he said, he had reframed the riots as a component of a story about youth homelessness.

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Emmerich wrote: “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.”

Emmerich said he understood that the trailer had generated “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.”

But that last sentence isn’t true: The white, wealthy gay man’s experience is at the very least materially different from that of the poor, black transgender woman, even without the added factors of racist and anti-trans prejudice.

We are not “all the same” in the struggle for acceptance, and the irony of Stonewall is that an act of civil unrest by the most marginalized of LGBTs helped all LGBTs, including the most materially and culturally privileged.

A trans woman, Kristine McClain, commented in response to Emmerich’s post: “As a transgender woman who has experienced bigotry and threats, the trailer made me want to scream. I saw yet again the push white cis gay men into the forefront and the complete marginalizing of transgender women.

“If you look at reality, it was Drag Queens, transgender women and TWOC (trans women of color) who started the movement. We were being arrested because we were wearing women’s clothes. This was against the law at that time. Take some time to read history. This trailer is a slap in the face to transgender women.”

The author Matthew Baume expressed further criticism. Emmerich’s problem is that he has taken a broad, whitewashing fictional paintbrush to one of the most emotional touchstones of the LGBT civil rights movement.

In the years since the riots, the Stonewall Inn not only has become a totem of the historic event and the spirit it symbolizes—it’s also the first place crowds converge at historical moments like the Supreme Court’s ruling on equal marriage.

The riots were heavily mythologized before the brilliant and important work of historians like Eric Marcus, David Carter, and Martin Duberman, who have all written powerful, well-researched accounts of the riots’ participants and the riots themselves.

Emmerich’s isn’t the first fictionalized film made about the riots, either: Stonewall (1995) was based on Duberman’s book.

That movie also features a cute white guy arriving in New York by bus, played by Frederick Weller, and heading straight to Greenwich Village, where he meets a cross-dressing hustler called La Miranda (Guillermo Diaz).

The 1995 Stonewall was released pre-widespread Internet and so pre-instant Internet fury, and in an era without identity politics as evolved and fervently held as today—and so its mirror-image storyline of Emmerich’s movie didn’t arouse the same controversy.

People were mostly glad just to see it: Then, as now, there was a paucity of gay-themed movies, and one based on such a prized historical event was to be welcomed.

There was also a wonderful 2011 PBS American Experience documentary, Stonewall Uprising.

The event continues to fascinate because it is both mysterious and powerful. There are very few photographs of the riots, and accounts of what happened are conflicting. Its potency is its mystery.

Emmerich and other filmmakers and authors absolutely have the right to make whatever movie or book they want derived from it—in fact, it makes for a perfect crucible to explore a range of LGBT issues that remain relevant today.

Another film with the Stonewall riots in any kind of focus, with at least its heart in the right place, is no bad thing, if only because it brings the event to the attention of a younger generation who either do not know about the riots or don’t know of their importance. The erasure of LGBT history as a whole is as pressing as all the squalling over identity politics.

But surely these movies should be informed by the bedrock of fact that is known about the riots’ participants.

Was the decision to have a cute white protagonist in both films simply material—the notion that a “mainstream” audience can watch such a protagonist more easily than a trans woman of color? Doesn’t that underestimate the filmgoing audience, as well as insulting minority groups?

A film well told and well written can make an audience care about its central character, regardless of skin color or gender identity, surely.

Personally, I’d rather a filmmaker choose a different, unfamiliar central character, like the lesbian Stormé DeLarverie, who some say was the lesbian who threw the first punch that night, resisting police arrest. DeLarverie died in May 2014 at 93.

But also, while the anger over the trailer is understandable, shouldn’t viewers wait and see Emmerich’s film? A 2½-minute preview cannot tell the whole story. If the film is as risibly clichéd, whitewashed, and insensitive as its tone-deaf trailer suggests, then fine—bring on the flaming pitchforks and angry words. Until then, let’s reserve judgment and hope—it must be said vainly, at this stage—for the best.