For ‘Stonewall,’ an Indiana-Born Avatar

25 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

For ‘Stonewall,’ an Indiana-Born Avatar.

“Stonewall,” Roland Emmerich’s would-be epic film about a turning point in the gay liberation movement in 1969, is far from the first historical movie to choke on its own noble intentions.

Roland Emmerich is addressing the massive backlash he has been receiving from members of the LGBT community and critics following the release of his new film Stonewall.The historical moment we call “Stonewall”—a series of grass-roots protests with complex motivations and diverse participants that took place in and around a divey Manhattan fag bar during the summer of 1969—has always been something of a Rorschach test: We see in it what we need to see.“Forty percent of the homeless youth in America today identify with being LGBT,” Jeremy Irvine, who plays lead Danny Winters, said. “I read that at the end of the script and went, ‘wow, this is a movie that is just as relevant today as it ever was.’ I think it’s kind of a disgrace that we’re not taught in schools about the Stonewall event, so I think if anything can get a wider awareness is only a good thing.” “Stonewall” follows Winters, who leaves behind his friends and loved ones when he is kicked out of his house and flees to New York. The biggest complaint among both critics and advocates is that Emmerich whitewashed the film, choosing a young, white, gay man as his protagonist and not featuring enough non-white or transgender characters.

Even my use of the word protest betrays a personal bias; other equally valid words—riot, rebellion, disturbance, uprising, vandalism—each cast a different hue on the events of those nights. Star Jeremy Irvine defends the movie ‘we’re genuinely really proud of.’ Jeremy Irvine and I are sitting in the hallowed gay institution whose history the handsome young British actor is accused of complicity in bastardizing. When the first movie called “Stonewall” opened here in 1996, its British director, Nigel Finch, had died of AIDS and there was little agreement about its historical authenticity.

On one level, “Stonewall” is a sweeping social allegory whose central character, Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine of “War Horse”), is an all-American boy from the provinces (Indiana) thrown out of the house by his father (David Cubitt), a high school football coach, for being gay. After enduring discrimination and police harassment, Winters and his friends find themselves caught up in the 1969 Stonewall riots. “It’s not a documentary — we’re not trying to be 100 percent factual,” said Joey King, who plays Winters’ supportive younger sister. Roland Emmerich’s “Stonewall” reduces these events to a backdrop for caricatures that were already passé in William Friedkin’s “The Boys in the Band” (1970). Both Finch’s film and the new “Stonewall,” directed by Roland Emmerich, have been criticized for distorting the facts of the gay-rights movement’s battle cry.

I have long chosen, for example, to invest in the interpretation of Stonewall that attributes a significant part of the don’t fuck with us energy of the first night to Judy Garland’s public spectacle of a funeral, which had occurred earlier that day on the Upper East Side. 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. ‘WE ARE CALLING A BOYCOTT OF STONEWALL. This is not about facts and history, this is about what’s happening now in the world.” “I hope that they get inspired,” Emmerich said. “That always was our idea.

It was there that, in 1969, a group of marginalized and persecuted gay men, drag queens, trans New Yorkers, and mad-as-hell bar patrons fought back against the corrupt policemen who had been harassing them so brutally and sparked the riots that would blaze on in the spirit of the decades-long fight for equal rights to come. I don’t particularly care if that view is “accurate.” (My self-conception as a gay man depends on it.) Others may see Stonewall as an unsurprising extension of the other ’60s revolutions or as an unsettling betrayal of the homophile integrationist impulse. Yes, to show how brutal their lives were, but the Stonewall riots more or less spawned the first gay march, and we always thought it was great to inspire people.” “It shines a light on something that started off as one thing and turned into a full blown movement,” Ron Perlman, who plays Stonewall Inn owner Ed Murphy, said. “LGBT movement began as a result of these riots, and it’s led up to watching the Supreme Court do what they just did.” The point is that we all, whether we intend to or not, decide for ourselves what a thing like Stonewall means—that’s just the nature of encountering history.

It’s this citadel of change and the lives of its proud citizens, this group of patrons-turned-victims-turned-activists, that are the focus of Stonewall, the newest film and current lightning rod of cinematic blasphemy by disaster-flick director Roland Emmerich. For example, it seems that in the ’60s gay people dressed like a cross between the casts of “Hair” and “Cats,” and all the homophobes wore horn-rimmed glasses or narrow-brimmed hats, or both. It’s only when some foolhardy soul attempts to represent his view of history in art that we bring our meanings to the public square—and there we often find that they do not necessarily get along.

Ever since the film screened for critics this week, those eyebrows have just about leapt from writers’ foreheads, suicidal because of the celluloid travesty. Baitz’s script is designed to show Danny’s gradual radicalization, as the farm boy becomes the brick-throwing revolutionary, but there’s a curious weightlessness about many key scenes. So it goes with Stonewall, Roland Emmerich’s feature-length attempt at recounting the story, which, in a bit of poetic symmetry, is currently being trashed about as fiercely as its namesake bar was in real life. He also becomes politicized by Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a member of the stodgy proto gay rights Mattachine Society, who also wants to be more than a friend. The movie, filmed in Montreal, does a reasonably good job of evoking the heady mixture of wildness and dread that permeated Greenwich Village street life in those days.

When his best Village friend and a new lover promise more than they can deliver, it’s tempting to think of the sillier moments in “Showgirls.” It’s not primarily the fault of the actors, whose careful work pays off emotionally in the final scenes. What’s missing here is the sense that these episodes are building to a showdown between police and activists that would lead inevitably to recent gay-rights triumphs. Their brashness and relative comfort with gender play—Ray/Ramona (Jonny Beauchamp) and Cong (Vladimir Alexis) are unapologetically femme and regularly go out in drag—initially frightens innocent Danny, but soon his lack of city survival skills and a growing political consciousness draw him into a sort of sisterhood with the crew. By many accounts, the rebellion was led by drag queens and gay street people who for the first time stood up to the police, and “Stonewall” dutifully acknowledges their participation. But, its invention of a generic white knight who prompted the riots by hurling the first brick into a window is tantamount to stealing history from the people who made it.

After the rioting has subsided and the next-day leafleting begun, there’s a coda in which Danny returns home presumably in search of some kind of closure, only to find himself trapped in a mash-up ad for Country Time Lemonade and J. Emmerich and Jon Robin Baitz, the estimable playwright who wrote the screenplay, insist that the movie pays tribute to a full multiethnic range of gay and lesbian characters, “Stonewall” falls short. The marginalization of real-life Stonewall heroes like Johnson, Ray Castro, and Sylvia Rivera, the latter two of whom are merged into a composite character named Ray, has been a hot-button issue since the film’s trailer came out.

In a controversial interview with Buzzfeed, Emmerich defended the decision to sideline the stories of the movement’s real-life trans women, butch dykes, and drag queens of color in order to tell the story through the eyes of a camera-friendly, straight-acting white male. “You have to understand one thing: I didn’t make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people,” he said. “I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. The actual film is not really the atrocity of “whitewashing” many feared, and it’s actually pretty solid on many historical details—any reviewer dismissing it out of hand as “offensive” is being willfully ungenerous.

There are plenty of moments in which Danny’s privileged naiveté is called out, and Ray/Ramona is arguably the film’s most heroic and appealing character. He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him.” Suffice it to say, revealing that he prioritized straight audiences’ empathy over the authenticity and honesty owed to gay audiences didn’t exactly calm Emmerich’s critics.

That said, Stonewall is certainly … uneven … with regard to the message it wants to convey—which goes a long way toward explaining why we find it so vexing. Take, for instance, the (historically dubious) question of who “started” the riots: Yes, white dude Danny throws the overly fetishized “first brick” in a dumb action movie scene, but you could equally argue that it’s a butch dyke’s arrest or Marsha P. And while the movie is refreshingly unapologetic about the femmeness of most of its characters (mascbros Danny and Trevor seem like anxious outliers in comparison), there’s also a scene where Danny sobs while an overweight old queen in bad drag, having paid for the privilege, attempts to service him. That blanket of warmth and power, the shiver of joy at the progress made so far, and the emotion elicited by the struggle is impossible not to feel when you step through its Christopher Street doors. It’s the religious experience that’s fueling the film’s unholy reaction. “I get shivers down my spine every time I come here,” he says. “You see the photos.

A terminally sullen Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Danny’s first New York crush, Trevor, a leader of the Mattachine Society, the seminal gay-rights organization. You have to think, ‘Wow, it really did happen right here.” For the explosion of think pieces and derision that Stonewall’s trailer and early screenings detonated, it’s clear that Irvine, at the very least, signed on for the film with the best of intentions. Is Ray/Ramona “problematic” because she dreams of playing house with a strapping man like Danny? (If femme gays aren’t allowed to want butch boys anymore, we’d better alert the community listserv—it’s still very much a thing.) Is it possible that they “save” each other in different ways? Baitz’s screenplay is so far removed from the subtlety and sophistication of his plays, like “Other Desert Cities,” and television shows, like “Brothers and Sisters,” that the most logical explanation for its bluntness is that he felt compelled to substitute strident melodrama and agitprop for psychological complexity. I just want to point out that they and many others are possible when examining Stonewall, a document so sloppy in its execution that it’s impossible to attribute any single focused ideological project to it.

A month after the trailer fiasco, he tells me, “If people want to base a movie on a two-minute trailer, that’s fine and I understand why,” he says. “No minority has been treated worse that the black transgender community so I totally understand that. Johnson and other key figures. “I don’t think any of us expected it to get the attention that it has,” he says. “But now how many people have heard the name Marsha P.

But you get the feeling that, deep down, what he really sees in the riots is a narrative of maturation, an upward progression in which downtrodden, furtive souls finally find the courage to come into the light and reform themselves into a serious, self-respecting political force. (In that context, Danny becomes not so much an ahistorical “savior” as a backward projection of the healthy, respectable sort of queerness Emmerich thinks the community should be striving for.) This, of course, is yet another possible reading of Stonewall, but it’s also basically the worst—or certainly most controversial—one that Emmerich could have espoused right now. But also, how cool that you are all talking about that.’” We begin talking about the reaction to the fact that Roland Emmerich is directing the movie, which wouldn’t seem like an obvious choice given the filmmaker’s oeuvre. Speaking with the New York Times about the trailer controversy, University of Arizona professor Susan Stryker offered an extremely productive insight: “Fighting over Stonewall history is a proxy battle for more entrenched structural conflicts [between LGBTQ identity groups].” One of the most heated of those “entrenched structural conflicts” is over this question of what it means to be a “good” queer person.

What’s interesting about the near-absolute rejection of Stonewall is that it shows how pervasive—at least among a certain queer cognoscenti—this view has become. After all, as a culture, we have a tendency to thrust people in his position into a place of advocacy, something he doesn’t take lightly, as his preaching about the homeless problem certainly speaks to. “I find it difficult to see it as my place,” he says. “I do get a little bit of stick from people who are like, ‘Who are you to say these things?’ You kind of have to agree with people on that. But I do think it’s worth considering why such a small, misbegotten movie—one that we could, as Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir suggests, just as easily nudge into the memory hole—has generated so much angst. Stonewall was a moment when we all put aside our differences and united to finally fight back—or at least that’s what most of us want it to have been.

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