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12 August 2015

Here’s why people are boycotting Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall film

Almost 23,000 people have signed a petition to boycott Roland Emmerich's new film about the Stonewall rebellion of 1969.

By Helen Thomas

Last week Roland Emmerich released a trailer for his new movie, Stonewall, about the eponymous riots of 1969 in Greenwich Village. According to the director, the film is a “compelling, fictionalised drama of those days centering on homeless LGBT youth”. The main character is a corn-fed, white, cisgender boy called Danny, who is kicked out of his house because of his homosexuality and retaliates by hitting the big city.

Two days after the trailer’s release, a petition to boycott the movie popped up in search of 15,000 signatures. It has now been signed by almost 23,000 people. Boycotters claimed that the film had “white-washed” and “cis-washed” history, erasing the significant contribution made by trans and queer women of colour and drag queens in the Stonewall uprising. (The film itself is out on 25 September.)

The petition was created by Pat Cordova-Goff, a trans activist feminine person of colour. She wrote on the page:

“OUR HISTORY WILL NOT BE WHITE/CIS-WASHED. History classes throughout our nation have built a reputation of instructing young generations that white, straight, cis folks are the saviors and founders of this land. Wrong. We were taught that light-skinned people are the goal; the goal to assimilate to. Wrong. We were also rarely taught about queer history, but when we were, it probably revolved around white cis gay men. Wrong.”

Season five winner of Ru Paul’s Drag Race Jinkx Monsoon joined the protest, tweeting these two pictures: 

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The woman on the left is Marsha P. Johnson, an African American drag queen. She is widely credited as a leader of the Stonewall riots, having gone to the club that night to celebrate her 25th birthday. In 1970 she and Sylvia Rivera, another drag queen of colour at the forefront of the rebellion, established STAR, the Street Transvestite (later renamed Transgender) Action Revolutionaries. The “mothers” would hustle to gather food and clothing for homeless LGBT youth living in the Christopher Street docks. While Marsha P. Johnson has been given a role in the Hollywood narrative, she is played by a cisgender male. She is only listed two places higher in the credits on than “Woman with Poodle”, played by Nathaly Thibault.

Likewise, Rivera, whether by legend or reality, is thought to be the first individual to have thrown a bottle into the building on the 28 June in retaliation against the police brutality of the Stonewall raid. In the movie trailer, it is suggested that the fictional Danny is the true hero of the night, saying “it’s the only way!” before throwing a brick. This has caused a flurry of photoshop pictures in which Danny is inserted into iconic moments of civil rights history.

Photo: Alejandro Juarez 

Unlike Marsha, Rivera, along with other trans Stonewall pioneers does not appear in the credits at all. They include African-American trans woman Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, who was struck on the head by a police officer before being taken into custody where she reported a corrections officer had broken her jaw. Stormé DeLarverie, a mixed heritage butch lesbian and drag king is thought to have been struck on the head and bleeding whilst she fought back against the police trying to arrest her. She was forced into handcuffs that were too tight before shouting at the bystanders in the crowd “Why don’t you guys do something?” Needless to say, she is not listed on the IMDB page either.

So why, oh why, does this trailer depict mid-western Danny throwing the first brick into the building on the night of the Stonewall rebellion? Either it’s very unfortunate editing, or it’s going to be yet another problematic movie where white people hijack the work of people of colour. Emmerich took to Facebook to respond to the backlash, claiming the film “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”. Promising perhaps, but it’s the next line where he fails spectacularly: “We are all the same in our struggle for acceptance.”

No, Roland. We are not all equal in our struggle. Have you ever appeared on a TV show and been asked what genitalia you have? You and I, cisgender white people, are born into a world of privilege that gives us unqualified power. If you can’t recognise that, I strongly recommend you don’t make a movie about one of the most important moments for transgender people of colour.

Gay rights activist Larry Kramer expressed his support for Emmerich by telling him to “not listen to the crazies”, and that he hopes “this boycott your film shit peters out”. Nice.

I talked to Pat Cordova-Goff about her petition. When asked how common this kind of colour and trans erasure was in Hollywood, she said “I think it’s very common, even just with white folks getting cast as people of colour.” The same goes for cis men playing trans women, with Jared Leto cast as a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club, as was Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, due for release in November this year. “I struggle to find a movie that accurately represents my history or my people at all,” said Goff. “We’re at a point now with racial justice where we won’t stand around and take this, and now it’s a matter or taking action. For a long-time our voices have been silent. It’s time for us to be respected in our own history.

“I’m thankful for any visibility of our community, I think it’s very important to continue this conversation. However, I don’t think our movement is desperate enough to take visibility at any chance we can get. I think we’re at the point now where our community is out there. Now we need accurate storytelling. This movie might be the first time some people are introduced to queer stories, and by being introduced to a white cis man, they’re getting completely the wrong narrative. It only proves that the only attractive form of storytelling is the white mouth.”

Miss Major is still alive today and has been vocal in her anger at the way Stonewall has been white-washed in the past. In an interview with Autostraddle, Major expressed her frustrations at the new trailer. “It’s absolutely absurd… these people can’t let it go. Everybody can’t be white!” She added, “I’m sorry, but the last time I checked, the only gay people I saw hanging around there were across the street cheering. They were not the ones getting slugged or having stones thrown at them. It’s just aggravating. And hurtful! For all the girls who are no longer here who can’t say anything, this movie just acts like they didn’t exist.”

Miss Major is an outspoken advocate of transgender rights. Photo: Quinn Dombrowski

Trans South Asian performance art duo Darkmatter also expressed their anger at the trailer, telling their Facebook followers, “It’s not just that the movie Stonewall erases these people. It’s to say that the movie Stonewall is making what’s happening around us explicit. It’s to say the gay movement and gay history is institutionalised erasure… The thing about fairy tales is that when they are told over and over again they become accepted as ‘truth’ and as ‘history’.”

When I reached out to the Stonewall Veterans Alliance, I was expecting to hear frustration at the film and its Hollywood spin. Instead, Paul Lucre, chairman of the board of directors, told me that the complaints amounted to nothing more than “bitchery”. He warned against falling into “the sewer of identity politics, which has obsessed America for all of my life. I am a half black Puerto Rican American who grew up in Brooklyn. When I was homeless in the 80s and living in the streets, I met a lot of people on the edge of life. They’re trying to make this into at once a race and class issue, and it’s just a movie.”

Lucre thinks the film “should be a cause for celebration… the director reached out to many gay, lesbian and transgender people. They were very inclusive in their approach. I can’t see why they should now be faulted because of some detail in the trailer… We’ve had indie things, but I would like it to be the kind of film that my brother who lives in Provo, Utah could bring his children to. If you have to change the character of a drag queen to a straight male, then go for it.

“It makes my blood boil that anyone would seek to boycott a film that’s not even out yet.”

The trailer for this film is problematic at best, and bigoted at worse. But to give the director the benefit of the doubt, I will see the film for myself and try to make an objective judgement. If it’s 90 minutes of “Yay Danny”, I’ll let you know, and hopefully we can prevent another example of Hollywood profiting at the expense of marginalised groups.