When I first heard that a movie on the Stonewall Riots was being released, I was excited, simply over the prospect of seeing a pivotal and decisive event in LGBT history depicted on the big screen. But my excitement faded as I learned that so many were outraged that the trailer featured a white cisgender male as the protagonist, potentially whitewashing history in a big way. A MoveOn petition was started, calling all to boycott the film: “Hollywood has a long history of white-washing and crafting White Savior narratives, but this is one step too far,” it read. However in response to the backlash, director Ronald Emmerich stated that the film would still “deeply honor the real-life activists who were there…and all the brave people who sparked the civil rights movement.” Since I had yet to see the movie, I still appreciated the filmmakers’ aim to make a mainstream film documenting such an important event, one that truly sparked the gay rights movement. Unfortunately, seeing the movie only reconfirmed what I already knew: in Hollywood, nearly every historical drama subverts history in an attempt to tell, instead, a very fictional story.
In Stonewall, Danny Winters, the protagonist, comes from a conservative small-town in Indiana that views homosexuality as a disease. After he’s caught messing around with the quarterback of the football team, his family disowns him and he moves to New York City in an attempt to start anew and seek acceptance. Once in the city, it’s clear he differs from the ruffian and bohemian lifestyles that surround him. He looks masculine, has short, blond hair, and dresses in a white tee and jeans. He’s so unassuming that he wouldn’t even ping on the strongest of gaydars—and he’s a character who’s probably difficult to relate to for any person who has experienced any type of oppression.
Danny eventually befriends a sometimes in-drag Latino and learns the NYC lifestyle: frequenting the Stonewall Inn, making fashion jokes, and even turning tricks for money. Still, he’s told he’s the way gay men should be, instead of the “gutter trash” he associates with. As time goes on, Danny finds himself at a crossroads between two very different groups: the oppressed street cats and The Mattachine Society, a group of political gay activists who seek acceptance through assimilation. What’s troubling though is that the narrative introduces power dynamics at play where Danny, due to his inherent whiteness and “straight-acting,” is able to transcend the street life by attending Mattachine Society meetings and eventually getting a job. Meanwhile Danny's brown, black, cross-dressing friends are left in a static situation left to just simply survive off the streets of New York.
This is seen in the climatic scene where Danny has to choose whether or not to throw the brick at the Stonewall Inn to instigate the riots. Trevor, a Mattachine Society member, calls to him saying: “That’s not the way, Danny,” to which Danny, replies: “No, it’s the only way” before throwing the brick at the inn and yelling “Gay Power.” His action ignites the full-on riot amongst the police and the youth, implying the sole instigator of the riot was Danny. Not only is it incredibly cliché and cheesy but is also historically inaccurate and further downplays the contributions that people of color and trans people made in the Stonewall Riots. In an interview with The Guardian, Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, a participant in the riots, stated that there was no definitive moment, only that “there was so much happening at once.” Even David Carter’s book, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Movement, suggests that, while some exact moments are left to contention, the riots consisted of gay and trans youths chanting “Fag Power” and “Take Over,” chucking glass bottles, smashing windows, hurling purses at police, while those police retaliated with fire hoses and barricades. There was no Danny—no sole center of the event that caused the gay rights movement.
This is a microcosmic representation of the movie: everyone around him is background noise. That isn’t to say the movie is colorblind, but the minority characters are added only to further develop Danny’s character as the coming-of-age hero. And while Emmerich said that he “also made it for straight people because [they] can feel for him,” this directing decision comes at the expense of alienating so many queer people, who in reality wouldn’t relate to a cisgender white male at all. There’s so, so much of Danny that it disregards the potential compelling stories of the homeless LGBT youth that the film should have focused on. For example, there are some characters loosely based off of important historical figures like Ray Castro, Marsha P. Johnson, and Storme DeLarverie, who took part in the Stonewall Riots. Their stories are sidelined and underdeveloped, and the effeminate stereotypes they’re saddled with are obviously far more embarrassing than empowering.
This is nothing new, just another notch in Hollywood’s long-standing tradition of whitewashing the history of marginalized people. But before watching Stonewall, I read a quote from Larry Kramer, a gay activist, on the movie: “Keeping the film from being released is only hurting the general public.” I understood what he meant as it spoke to a question that I often asked myself: Should movies with a semi-educational purpose, such as Stonewall, be perpetuated regardless of the problematic issues presented with them? In the ideal case for this movie, the audience wouldn’t just take the film at face value, instead taking the initiative to inform themselves on the actual Stonewall Riots: uprisings between the young gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals—such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia River— and the NYC Police Department that lasted for six days, serving as a pivotal event that would spark the gay rights movement. But that’d be placing more pressure on the audience to inform themselves than on the Hollywood film industry to accurately depict an important, historical event.
In an interview with Buzzfeed, Emmerich stated that “[The street hustler] teaches him about survival. Through him, we experience them.” This speaks to Hollywood’s continuation to operate under the expectation that normalized, white characters have the best hope of speaking to an audience. In 2015, this is an outdated notion. In the past year, the LGBT community has made significant gains, from the legalization of gay marriage to queer representations in popular culture—Orange Is the New Black, Laverne Cox, and Caitlyn Jenner and her show, I Am Cait. If mainstream audiences can appreciate a show about Caitlyn Jenner then they should be able to appreciate the struggle of a real, historical figure such as Marsha P. Johnson, who not only engaged in the Stonewall Riots but was also an HIV activist who some believe to be the first to ignite the tensions at Stonewall. She and many other marginalized youths joined together in camaraderie and friendship to fight fear and injustice, so that others may now have rights to enjoy; that is a story worth telling.
By now, mainstream audiences should be able to understand or at least deal with the complex and diverse struggles of the LGBT community—and if they’re not, we should work to make that the norm, instead of avoiding the path of truth out of some sort of antiquated fear.