Can Stonewall Be a Catalyst for Change, Again?

By Jase Peeples

Originally published: The Advocate 9/23/15

When Roland Emmerich — out director of popcorn fare such as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 — announced he would be venturing outside of his movie-making comfort zone to make a film based on the 1969 Stonewall riots, whispered worries began whizzing around the Web that a filmmaker better known for explosions and CGI disasters would be capable of convincingly capturing the spirit of a defining moment in LGBT history.

The release of Stonewall’s first trailer — which featured the film’s fictional protagonist Danny (played by Jeremy Irvine) throwing that fabled first brick that ignited the uprising — turned those whispers into an outraged roar. Numerous people accused Emmerich of whitewashing LGBT history by centering the story on a fictional white gay man rather than highlighting the many trans and queer people of color who have historically been credited with leading the early-morning charge that would come to be known as the turning point in the modern fight for LGBT civil rights.

While Emmerich says he can empathize with his accusers, he insists his intention wasn’t to erase any group of people’s place in history, but to make a movie from a perspective that aligned with his own experience. “I totally understand their position, but they have to understand my position. I’m white and gay, and I think the majority was white and gay [in the uprising],” he says. “I’m using a white character to be educated by [transgender women of color].”

It’s true that a filmmaker who makes a movie from a perspective that resonates closely with their own experience can often result in a powerful production. And stepping too far outside one’s own experience can also spark critique, as Paris Is Burning director Jennie Livingston — a white lesbian — witnessed, facing backlash from some who argued that the story of people of color finding community in New York City’s underground ball scene of the 1980s wasn’t her tale to tell. But Livingston didn’t replace real people of color with fictional stand-ins to vogue across the dance floor in place of Willie Ninja, and she managed to showcase a young white person, Venus Extravaganza, being educated by black transgender women without diminishing her mentors.

The same cannot be said for Stonewall’s central character, who literally takes a brick out of the hands of a ferocious queen of color and hurtles it into history. Thus Irvine’s Danny seems more like a tight T-shirt-wearing Superman who arrives in time to light the path to truth, justice, and a more fabulous way of life rather than a gay Luke Skywalker trained in the ways of the fierce by a family of gender-nonconforming Obi-Wan Kenobis.

Nevertheless, Emmerich asserts it was the predicament of homeless LGBT youth that struck him hardest when he began researching the events leading up to the Stonewall riots. And he acknowledges that the lack of a definitive historical record presented a challenge to create a film that would “please everyone.”

“When I began researching the Stonewall riots, I was surprised to learn how little we knew about it,” he says. “This wasn’t a time when people had cell phones and could easily take pictures. All these myths were created because it was like a traffic accident with five people where every witness has a different story. That’s what happened at the Stonewall riots. There were four, five, six hundred people — nobody knows exactly how many — but there were many people, and because of that there are many different stories around. So we centered our story on one group of kids.”

Responding to the backlash, he adds, “I totally understand the plight, especially of black transgender women, but I kind of made a movie about homeless LGBT youth, who are probably the poorest of poor and have the hardest life. And they’re still today out in the streets in big numbers … because there [aren’t enough] activists out there working for them.”

The lack of an accurate historical record is why Irvine agrees that any film made about the Stonewall uprising would be criticized, but he says, “Emmerich has given it a pretty good shot.”

“We have these fictional kids, like my character, that represent all the people who we don’t know about — the hundreds of kids who fought in the riots and were forgotten about,” Irvine says. “The group of kids who adopt Danny are a very diverse group of homeless kids that include gender-fluid black characters, Puerto Rican gender-fluid characters, gay characters, and lesbian characters.”

However, with the exception of Ray/Ramona (a composite gender-nonconforming character inspired by real-life Stonewall veterans Raymond Castro and trans pioneer Sylvia Rivera) played by out gay actor Jonny Beauchamp, Danny’s adoptive family members receive little character development. Even the real-life Stonewall heroes who are included in the film intact — such as trans icon Marsha P. Johnson (played with earnest respect by Otoja Abit) — are represented as little more than a footnote in their own story.

That’s why critics are characterizing Emmerich as a director with his head in the sand, working within a broken Hollywood system, rather than one who has drawn a line in the sand and created a film that works to improve visibility for the LGBT community and people of color.

Jonny Beauchamp as Ray/Ramona in 'Stonewall.'

Still, Beauchamp doesn’t view the backlash as completely negative.

“Nothing that’s been said is anything that shouldn’t have been said,” he explains. “In general, if these are conversations people are having, if this is how people are feeling, then people need to know about it. People need to know that people want to see these stories. Producers, writers, directors, everyone — the industry needs to know that this is how people are feeling. I think it can only perpetuate more stories and more storytellers.”

“I’m glad that there’s been such a strong reaction,” he adds. “I mean, I hope some of those people will go on to see the film and then have an opinion about it, but art is meant to be discussed and it’s meant to be fought over. So I think that’s fine. I also don’t think this should be the definitive story of anything. I mean, is there a definitive World War II movie?”

Conversely, Abit — who says playing Marsha P. Johnson helped enrich his appreciation of LGBT history — worries the backlash may backfire, making it more difficult for movies based on queer culture to be made.

“I think people may be kind of cautious because [Stonewall has become] a mythical kind of story, and if you don’t get it right, and you see with our film people don’t think we get it right, people are just going to bash it right away,” says Abit. “I don’t think that helps the community at all. Because as artists you’re creating art, you want to tell a story, and also start a conversation. So I fear because of the big backlash, other artists will stay away from telling the story of Stonewall. But we need to have more Stonewall stories now. Not tomorrow, not next year when things die down, but right now.”

The hope for more stories from storytellers across the LGBT spectrum is one Emmerich says he shares. “I really hope that maybe a black transgender woman makes her own film about what her position and feelings about Stonewall are, because it had so many different angles,” he says. “I hope many more films about Stonewall get made, because that’s the main reason why I did it.

In the wake of Stonewall, there is a golden opportunity to improve the future direction of LGBT depictions in cinema. If only a fraction of those who have spent their energy and time speaking out against the film channel their scorn into support for other projects — such as the upcoming documentary on the life of Stonewall veteran and trans trailblazer Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Major!— then Emmerich’s film could be a powerful catalyst for positive change. Just not, perhaps, in the way he originally intended.