We’re at each other’s throats again. It happens, as John Wayne’s character says in my favorite western, “The Searchers,” “just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.” Trans folks are up in arms against gay men, white people are angry at people of color, and this time — absurdly — it’s all because of a movie trailer. Roland Emmerich, who directed the blockbuster action pictures “Independence Day” (1996) and “White House Down” (2013) and who is openly gay, has a new film coming out: “Stonewall,” a fictionalized account of the violent birth of the modern LGBT rights movement. With a screenplay by the supertalented out gay playwright Jon Robin Baitz (“Other Desert Cities” and many more), “Stonewall” centers on a young gay man from the heartland, Danny Winters (played by Jeremy Irvine), who gets kicked out by his parents, lands in New York City, and finds friendship with street people and an awakened political consciousness that culminates with him throwing a brick at the Stonewall Riots.
What’s wrong with that, you may be asking. Well, for starters, Emmerich, Baitz, and Irvine are all white. They’re also all men. And as we all (should) know, many of the brick-hurlers and cop-punchers at the Stonewall Riots were what we now call transgender and they were multiracial. Who threw the first brick? I don’t know and I don’t care.
At this writing, nearly 24,000 outraged people have signed a petition urging moviegoers to stay away from “Stonewall.” As the petition puts it, “It is time that black and brown transwomyn and drag queens are recognized for their efforts in the riots throughout the nation. From the preview alone, we know that will not be happening. Majority of characters casted are white actors, cis men play the role of transwomyn, and folks who began the riots do not seem to be credited with such revolutionary acts.”
For those of you who live under a rock, like I do, cis refers to people whose gender identity matches the sex they were born with. I had to look it up. But the more I think about it, the more impressed I am with the locution. For those of us who aren’t trans, it’s time to stop categorizing ourselves as normal. No! We’re a variation, just like everybody else. We don’t think twice about categorizing trans people, so it only makes sense for us to have a category of our own, one defined along the same lines. I’m fine with being a cis, as long as the plural form is cissies.
Emmerich responded in a Facebook post: “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.”
Into this battle — it’s bigger and nastier than a kerfuffle — barged Larry Kramer. Never known for his tact, Kramer posted a mini-screed on the legendary Peter Staley’s Facebook page. Larry’s shift keys are apparently busted: “don't listen to the crazies. for some reason there is a group of ‘activists’ that insists on maintaining their prime importance and participation during this riot. unfortunately there seems no one left alive to say ‘it wasnt that way at all,’ or ‘who are or where the fuck were you.’ as with so much history there is no way to ‘prove’ a lot of stuff, which allows artists such as yourself (and me I might add) to take essences and attempt to find and convey meaning and truth. i sincerely hope this boycott your film shit peters out. we are not dealing with another ‘Cruising’ here. keeping your film from being seen is only hurting ourselves. good luck and thank you for your passion.”
By my reckoning, only one person really benefits from all of this fighting — me. Controversies like this are gifts to a media columnist.
Ahem. Calling the thousands of human beings who signed the petition “crazies” doesn’t help. It’s hardly crazy to demand that a film based on history get the history right. And claiming that “as with so much history there is no way to ‘prove’ a lot of stuff” willfully ignores (at least) two well-researched books on the subject of the Stonewall Riots: David Carter’s “Stonewall” and Martin Duberman’s “Stonewall,” neither to be confused with “Stonewall,” Emmerich’s movie. If there’s a problem here, it’s a lack of imagination as far as titles are concerned. There’s not a lot of dispute about the key roles Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, a black drag queen and a Latina drag queen, played in the riots. There’s a Marsha P. Johnson in the movie; Sylvia Rivera not so much.
(A little comedy relief: On one of the numerous occasions Marsha P. Johnson found herself in a court of law, the judge asked her what the “P” stood for, to which Marsha P. Johnson snapped, “Pay it no mind!”)
At the same time, it’s hardly fair to condemn a movie before seeing it. Basing a boycott on a trailer is dicey; the purpose of trailers is to get as many people as possible to buy tickets, so it’s no surprise that the “Stonewall” trailer features many shots of cute-as-a-button Jeremy Irvine, including one all too brief moment when he whips his shirt off. Gay white men appear to be this film’s biggest target market. Hollywood makes films to make money. Whether the product is artistically and politically honest is and has always been a question of the director’s and screenwriter’s intelligence and talent together with a big scoop of serendipity.
So at the risk of ticking off both sides of this war, I suggest that everybody cool down and wait till the film opens before denouncing or promoting it. I know, I know — you can’t boycott a movie you’ve already bought tickets for and seen. My advice to the boycotters is to send someone in as a spy, with a notebook and a penlight to take careful notes. It’s good to know what you’re talking about, even with movies.
Follow @EdSikov on Twitter.