One has to imagine that Roland Emmerich is genuinely surprised to be catching “friendly fire” over his gay rights historical drama STONEWALL. Sure, controversy was probably something he considered innevitable – even welcome, given the film’s clear “Hey, awards season: Look at me!!!” Fall release and low-key hype machine – but surely the long-time “out” gay filmmaker and activist didn’t expect to find himself under fire from elements within the LGBTQ community itself. To the degree that Emmerich self-identifies with the heroes of films, it’s not hard to imagine that he feels a bit like an alternate-universe version of Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore from INDEPENDENCE DAY: One who, upon delivering The Greatest Battle Speech Ever, found himself facing not applause but a chorus of indifference and even outrage: “Stuff your battle-plan, man!” “Who says we WANT to fight the aliens!?” “Since when are YOU in charge!?”
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Now, as a straight white guy, I have just about the least authority imaginable about what anyone else should be upset about. But, since I am a film writer who recently released an entire video that (partly) deals with Emmerich as a political filmmaker and will almost certainly end up reviewing/covering STONEWALL a month or so from now, I think it’s at least worth putting some (pre-viewing) thoughts on the matter down while we’re all still considering what’s to be made of this one.
It’s an old joke that the worst thing that happens to a political party (or movement) is that it wins, because once the overall goal of victory is achieved the uneasy alliances (“strange bedfellows” and all that) have time to settle in, get comfortable and re-focus on all of the differences they’d temporarily set aside to take down their common adversary; often leading to renewed infighting and (sometimes) a weakening of newly-captured power. Relevant case in point: With events like the Supreme Court gay-marriage decision and an ever-growing public acceptance-tolerance thereof seemingly to signal a major generational win for LGBTQ activism; the “G” has found itself at odds with an L, B, T and Q who, rather than join in the victory celebration, would instead like to start talking about their own less “socially comfortable” concerns – the ones that they feel G forced/allowed to be “back-burnered” in favor of more immediately-attainable “foot in the door” goals.
STONEWALL (the movie-to-be and the actual event that inspired it) are uniquely emblematic of this schism. For those who don’t know (and that a lot of people still don’t is both the reason to make the movie and the reason to be upset about what form the movie takes) the story goes like this: Stonewall Inn was a gay bar in Greenwich Village, NY. On June 28 1969, an aggressive but by no means atypical police raid on the establishment spilled out in a mini-spectacle on the street that drew a growing crowd of onlookers. So goes the “historical legend” (an as recreated in the film’s trailer) a young female patron being beaten by the police demanded “Why don’t you guys do something!?” of the crowd, a which point a violent clash with the police began that ran on and off for several nights. In the aftermath, the Gay Liberation Front officially formed and the modern Gay Rights movement was essentially born.
That’s the “pop-history” version of the Stonewall story, and you can see why it so appeals to Emmerich’s sensibilities (his filmmaking sensibilities, I mean. Given that he was a gay teenager himself when Stonewall was news the personal appeal seems evident): His favorite story/theme is that of an individual (or an “individualist” identity) being woken up to the need for action on behalf of the greater good by an impossible-to-ignore inciting incident – think Earth’s nations realizing the need for global-unity in the face of extinction in INDEPENDENCE DAY, or Mel Gibson’s “I just want to keep MY land and family safe” avenging dad in THE PATRIOT, or the entire plots of THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW or 2012. So it makes sense that his version of dramatizing STONEWALL is a story about a young gay man mainly looking to find his own safety/freedom in (relatively) tolerant urban New York being galvanized into revolutionary activism by being onhand for the “Stonewall Riots.”
And from the trailer, that looks like exactly the movie Emmerich has made. Supposedly, he’s been looking to make it for more than a decade, which might explain how old-fashioned a lot of this looks; right down to the TITANIC-style “make-believe people amidst the real history” plotting and the “Johnny All-American, but gay” lead hero – which is exactly the stuff a lot of people are having a problem with.
Granted, no one outside of the studio and filmmakers have seen the finished film, but the lack of real historic figures of the moment and the Hollywood-handsome white hero is enough to set off alarm bells that were already set to “skeptical” among many contemporary activists. The main issue: While it became the “battle flag” for the “mainstream” gay-rights movement, the events at Stonewall were largely driven by the actions of LGBTQ women and particularly transgender women of color (the specific crime the bar was being raided for was “cross-dressing,” which was illegal at the time) – many of whom were not wide-eyed innocents waiting to be caught-up in the sweep of history but rather established activists in the own right.
This is essentially the recurring problem with the history of social-activism: The people who successfully media-manage social-movements understand that “Ordinary Person Rises To Greatness Thrust Upon Them” is a better, more “useful” story than the alternative (see: Rosa Parks was already a hard-working Civil Rights figure for almost a decade before the bus incident, not an unassuming everywoman who spoke up in the right moment), particularly in the way that it makes joining-up feel more welcoming to Johnny-Come-Lateleys: “I am ALSO only just now waking up to this injustice!” This means that the people who do the hard/dirty work end up getting the historical short-stick, and in this case it means that Stonewall, as a “story,” is a longtime sticking-point for many in the “everybody else” wing of LGBTQ activism (and amid the additional myriad racial and class divisions therein) who’ve long felt that the movement has hitched it’s win/loss narrative to issues of interest to “straight-acceptable” gay white men to the detriment of others’ interests – “Hey, we’re all happy for a win, but not ALL of us had ‘being able to make it official and Mom & Dad being cool with it now because they enjoy those nice boys on MODERN FAMILY’ as The Endgame here.”
So it’s beyond understandable that for those same people, Emmerich’s STONEWALL positioning a fictional “generic” white dude (specifically, Jeremy Irvine as a studly Midwestern farm kid who flees homophobic persecution by his family/peers for the NYC gay scene) as it’s main character is a continuation of “mainstream” (read: white/cisgender/male) gay activism co-opting their efforts while leaving them out of the subsequent decision-making. Hell, it’s beyond “understandable,” it’s agreeable – even if you’re going to go with a fictional lead to give you greater room to wring drama from the narrative, why does it have to be this fictional lead? Why not build the story around Ray Castro (the only “official” gay man actually arrested in the original riots) or Marsha P. Johnson (a New York drag queen already locally-famous before Stonewall) or Sylvia Rivera (a transgender activist and real-life GLF founding-member)? Are we really still, in 2015, assuming that a movie can’t reach the biggest possible audience (and Emmerich’s activist-filmmaking is always about getting The Message to “the masses”) unless the audience-POV character looks like an archetypal handsome caucasian Prom King type?
On the other hand… I remain unconvinced that disappointment at how overly-conventional the film’s story looks (like it or not, “look-conventional, message-radical” is Emmerich’s default-setting for political filmmaking) is enough to indict it for “erasure,” particularly with some kind of malicious intent. It would be one thing if the film was setting out to explicitly say “Marsha, Ray Castro, Sylvia Rivera etc. weren’t the REAL heroes here – it was actually this white guy we made up!”, that’d be monstrous, a clear case of outright malice against marginalized LGBTQ persons and the truth (and before you scoff: Emmerich’s previous historical drama was about how William Shakespeare wasn’t actually William Shakespeare) …but that doesn’t appear to be the film that’s been made.
There is such a thing as historical fiction, and one of the ways it’s most often employed is to give a narrative “arc” to real events without having to compromise the often “un-narrative-ness” of actual people’s lives (the “fake” character gets the easy-to-follow 3-act-structure storyline, the “real” people he/she encounters are able to be themselves.) Another is the “mythic history” route, where the broad-strokes events are real but the people are made-up, usually as avatars of collective groups/ideas important to the time. STONEWALL appears to be splitting the difference: Johnson, Castro and other real-life figures are a part of the cast, but the main “hero” and his (notably diverse-looking) friends/allies are essentially symbolic stand-ins for “every” non-political LGBTQ person spurred to higher action by the events, “every” one who was unsure about that, “every” ally who joined the cause, etc. Again: It is a problem in itself that the film resorts to a white male (fictional) perspective of what was largely not a white male story; but this isn’t an inherently “invalid” approach to this film.
Obviously, this is all hypothetical until the movie actually comes out, but for now you can count me (with reservations) in the “wait and see” camp. I can see where/why people are upset, and even now you can see potentially-problematic elements baked into the final product (the trailer makes it look like the brick Irvine’s character throws is what “ignites” the riot, which would be both dramatically-cheezy and a provable rewriting of actual history, where it’s Johnson whose reputed to have thrown the first brick); but on the other hand I can’t not be a little bit optimistic about at least the “idea” that STONEWALL can even be imagined as a viable mainstream “crowd pleaser” issue-movie at this point.
Surely, the mere fact that a major-release “Where Pride began”-themed movie, complete with trailer-narration borrowed from The President of The United States, exists can be cause for (at least) admiration while also noting both its individual and broader systemic flaws at least until there’s an actual full film to examine, can’t it? That’s not rhetorical, I’m asking because, like I said at the beginning, I don’t equipped with the proper experience and perspective to have a “strong” opinion here one way or another: Does the obvious eye-rolling “Oh, come ON!” casting of the lead and the way it evokes broader historical instances of erasing the contributions of trans persons, women and people of color from the gay-rights narrative “indict” the whole film in and of itself, or is it possible for the finished product to have virtues (being a good movie, getting at least the basic thrust of the story in front of a huge worldwide audience) that mitigate those imperfections? My instinct is more in line with the second option, but