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Roland Emmerich’s upcoming Stonewall—a film that tells a fictionalized story of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, which many consider the beginning of the modern gay rights movement—was intended to be the openly gay filmmaker’s tribute to a pivotal, important event. Instead, the first trailer sparked a storm of controversy, including a proposed boycott, and the film is being accused of whitewashing history. Now Emmerich has responded to the criticism.
In the late 1960s, the Stonewall Inn became an infamous gay hangout in New York City. It was subject to regular and brutal police raids and the patrons to harassment, and after being pushed too far, one night the patrons fought back and galvanized a community. Many of the real-life individuals involved in the movement and this incident were transgender people and people of color, typically the most marginalized members of the LGBTQ community. The issue is that, instead of focusing on the people who were there, Stonewall revolves around a fictional young, handsome white man from the Midwest. Emmerich released a statement on Facebook responding to the complains, saying:
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.
Though the crowd scenes in the trailer represent the racial diversity of patrons at the Stonewall, and in the uprising, but this Midwestern kid is shown in an inciting role. Credit for actually sparking the riot is, unlike what we see in the trailer, given to a number of different minority players. There are the likes of Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a transgender woman who refused to show police officers ID and got a broken jaw for her stance; Storme DeLaverie, an African-American lesbian who threw the first punch, and is often cited as the Rosa Parks of the gay community; and Sylvia Rivera, who Emmerich mentions, a 17-year-old Puerto Rican drag queen who was fed up with the constant harassment.
The apparent pushing of these key figures, as well as many more, into the background to focus instead on Danny Winters (English actor Jeremy Irvine), a made up white kid, does not sit particularly well with many activists and advocates in the LGBTQ community. A online petition to boycott the film that already has more than 15,000 signatures reads:
To all considering watching the newest whitewashed version of queer history, it is time that black and brown transwomyn and drag queens are recognized for their efforts in the riots throughout the nation.
Elsewhere in Emmerich’s statement, he talks about how part of his desire to make Stonewall was to shine a light on the circumstances that lead to such high rates of homelessness among LGBT youth, and how there has been little change in the causes and numbers in the 46 years between Stonewall and today. He hoped to dramatize that struggle by telling the story of a young gay man from the American heartland who is kicked out of his home for his sexuality, finally finds a place to belong, and becomes a part of the events leading up to the night of June 28, 1969.
To be honest, while Roland Emmerich’s intentions sound earnest, this comes across like a bland movie that has already been seen in one form or another many times before. It’s hard not to be disappointed when the real story and the real people involved are already have super interesting, dramatic, not to mention unique narratives that could have made for an incredible film.
We’ll see how this plays out between now and when Stonewall hits theaters on September 25.