The Advocate July/Aug 2022
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In Defense of Stonewall     

STONEWALL

There’s a difference between a movie and a film.

Films, like Tangerine or last year’s Love Is Strange, have an “academic hue,” according to a 2014 Guardian article parsing the high- and low-culture distinctions between the two terms. In film, art is the goal, and it is “thus deserving of close scrutiny.” This is why there are “film studies” and “film festivals,” instead of “movie studies” and “movie festivals.”

But in a movie, like Stonewall, entertainment is the goal. Its plot takes a predictable route in order to win wide appeal. This appeal, aimed at producing profits, is just part of the business of entertainment. Money, as they say, makes the world go round. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, the movie’s audience might just learn something positive in the process.

Film critics — as well as many LGBT observers — have unleashed harsh criticism of Stonewall, director Roland Emmerich’s passion project about a young white man who, after being kicked out of his home in Indiana because he’s gay, finds refuge in New York City among queer kids — many of them homeless LGBT people of color. The off-with-his-head review titles — Gawker’s “There Aren’t Enough Bricks in the World to Throw at Roland Emmerich’s Appalling Stonewall” or Vanity Fair’s “Stonewall Is Terribly Offensive, and Offensively Terrible" — border on hysterics. (If only we had such media outrage about the HIV crisis in the black community or the unabated murders of trans women.) These titles pretty much sum up the opinions of their writers, who hold up a film-studies magnifying glass to eviscerate, as the latter review states, “ultimately yet another cartoonish fantasy about white saviors and square-jawed heroes; it should be called Independence Gay.

But c'mon. Stonewall is a movie, not a piece of art. It is certainly not the end of the world. And as a piece of popcorn entertainment, it’s actually not bad.

Granted, much of this criticism is deserved and expected. To place the first brick thrown at the onset of the modern LGBT rights movement in the hand of a handsome young white man is not only out of touch with history; from a contemporary standpoint, it is downright offensive. After all, there would be no modern rights movement, no Stonewall, without LGBT people of color.

At present, white gay men like Emmerich reap the rewards of marriage equality as well as the whiteness and the maleness they were privileged to be born with (disclaimer: I am a part of this demographic). Many white gay men exercise this privilege by publishing books and creating films with (often white) protagonists, which tell a history intended to be shared by people of all races, ethnicities, and gender identities. Meanwhile, the marginalized groups of the LGBT community continue to be discriminated against openly in law, society, and media representation. For many, Stonewall hurts, because it is a missed opportunity to help address these wrongs.

Admittedly, Emmerich has not helped his movie much when confronting his critics publicly.

“I totally understand their position, but they have to understand my position. I’m white and gay, and I think the majority was white and gay [in the uprising],” he told The Advocate in a recent interview. “I’m using a white character to be educated by [transgender women of color].”

At worst, these comments come off as racist and out of touch with LGBT people who are not white or male. At best, he is sorely in need of media training.

But Emmerich is exercising a golden rule that many creators follow: Write what you know. And although he has dabbled in the world of independent filmmaking, he is known to the world for action movies, blockbusters like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. His skillset lies in offering entertainment, in knowing how to use violence and romance to advance a plotline, and keenly understanding the avenues that will help mainstream audiences be able to access a movie. In short, he is a creature of Hollywood, with all of the privileges and limited worldview that entails.

Stonewall is not an art-house film, a critical darling designed to impress niche viewers but find little reach beyond the independent cinemas of New York and Los Angeles. The movie is functional. It makes clear in its production notes that the main character, Danny Winters, is engineered to be “the universal character that you’re looking for, that can be the entry point for everyone into your movie.”

In Hollywood, “universal” is still code for white, and Emmerich has caused some uproar with his sought-after casting of a fair-haired, “straight-acting” lead as his star. And Emmerich's perception that the best point of entry for “everyone” would be the steely blue eyes of a white, musclebound young man from rural America may well indicate his own unexamined privilege.

But the truth is, this is a movie, and this is Hollywood business as usual. Stonewall is not made exclusively for the viewing of the LGBT community. It is made to reach the folks of Danny’s birthplace, Indiana, or whatever white, presumably straight segment of the population that identifies with the Heartland, which still makes up a majority of this country (and ticket sales). It is also made to touch the hearts and minds of nearly 40 percent of the country that still opposes same-sex marriage, and those who would still expel a child from their home because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Many television shows lauded for their diversity also have this formula of having privileged white characters find themselves in a situation far outside their comfort zone in order to face, well, reality. So why do we love Orange Is the New Black but hate Stonewall? Perhaps the fault is in the medium. Television outpaces movies in diversity for a variety of reasons. Even if a television show starts off problematically, it's generally given the benefit of a dozen episodes to develop its characters and adjust those characters in response to audience reaction. But a movie like Stonewall has just two hours to endear its audience to its characters and its cause. And once the movie hits theaters, there's no turning back. At present, the prospects of a Stonewall sequel seem grim, but both Emmerich and the movie's stars have repeatedly stated that their picture should not be the sole effort to tell the historic story. Hopefully, its failures will inspire other filmmakers to do justice to those unsung heroes mentioned in the movie's closing credits.

Critics of the movie, who are privileged enough to have seen films like Tangerine — an excellent production that also spotlights the lives of LGBT sex workers, albeit in modern-day Los Angeles — are quick to note where these films succeed and where Stonewall fails in terms of diversity. They also point to movies like Straight Outta Compton, which shows the rise of some of the most famous rappers in the world, as proof that minority characters can be stars of movies and still generate big revenue for Hollywood.

But that's an unfair comparison, when we're still waiting to see the big Hollywood blockbuster about LGBT people. It hasn’t been made yet. And it likely won’t be made for quite some time, until the people who inspire films — mainly well-known influencers and entertainers — can live openly as LGBT, and the public can love them for their identities. This will require significant shifts in society and the entertainment industry, which can only happen if movies like Stonewall are made and succeed. It wouldn’t hurt to have at least one out male A-list actor, instead of stars who lash out at reporters or give intentionally vague “Google me” responses when asked relevant questions about sexuality in Hollywood.

Don’t downplay the accomplishments of Stonewall. The movie has done what few, if any, have done before — it spotlights the plight of homeless LGBT youth, many of whom are forced to be sex workers to survive. This is a period piece, but the message is still relevant today. Stonewall makes sure to underscore the statistic that 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT in the closing credits. The fact that this is a subject of a motion picture should be celebrated.

In retrospect, Emmerich bit off more than he could chew in choosing a title that appropriates such an iconic event in LGBT history. Perhaps he would have found a warmer reception by nixing the Stonewall connection altogether and focusing solely on this plight of homeless youth, an unquestionably worthy cause, which, by the way, you can help address by donating to organizations like the Los Angeles LGBT Center or the Ali Forney Center.

But if this were the case, how many people would see the movie, or activist Marsha P. Johnson or the Mattachine Society up on the big screen? How many Indiana parents would see a movie that focuses on the friendship of a white gay man and his genderqueer friend of color, Ray, whose performance rises above as the emotional heart and true star of the movie? How many LGBT people, outraged that a fictional white protagonist is given credit for sparking such a revolutionary moment, have consequently educated themselves and others on LGBT history? Are these outcomes really such failures?

In discussing Stonewall, let’s not throw the gayby out with the bathwater. There is much to appreciate. And there is much to learn from, as we make the next film — or movie — that makes a difference in our community.

DANIEL REYNOLDS is an editor at The Advocate. 

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