About a week ago, a trailer for the upcoming feature film Stonewall, a movie about the 1969 LGBT riots, was released on YouTube.
Almost immediately, people were upset that trailer depicted the fictional main character, Danny Winters (played by Jeremy Irvine), throwing the first brick that initiated the riots instead of activist Marsha P. Johnson, who is credited for that moment. While there is no absolute certainty as to who actually threw the brick, Johnson undoubtedly played a vital role in the Stonewall Riots and the LGBT movement.
Because that legendary event has already been attributed to a fictional, white, cisgender man instead of a known activist who most people acknowledge was one of the first to fight back against the police in the riots, people have predicted that the entire movie will erase the hard work put in by the transgender women of color who were integral to the movement. A petition to boycott the movie has over 22,000 signatures at the time of writing.
Director Ronald Emmerich responded to criticism by insisting that the movie “deeply honors the real-life activists who were there” including Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, and that we shouldn’t judge the film based solely on the trailer. Usually, I would agree, but I don’t think that Stonewall is deserving of this chance.
With transgender identities receiving more attention from the mainstream media, many journalists have (incorrectly) inferred that the gay rights movement has paved the way for the transgender rights movement. Anyone who is familiar with the history of the fight for LGBT rights finds this observation incredibly frustrating seeing that transgender women were at the forefront of the movement decades ago. In screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz’s response to the criticism of the film, he lightly echoes the same inaccurate sentiment, “[Stonewall is] a humanist’s dramatization of how the disenfranchised are empowered by rage, and it traces a point in an arc towards justice that […] continues today with the fight for marriage equality and is now starting to focus on transgender rights.” Now starting to focus on transgender rights? Baitz has somehow written a film about a movement started by transgender people, but also believes that the fight for transgender rights is a recent occurrence.
It’s easy to see where the confusion began. Many LGBT nonprofit organizations have co-opted the movement that was once about our entire community to push for rights exclusively for lesbians and gays. In fact, the Human Rights Campaign, the organization that famously fought for marriage equality in the United States, is notorious for being transphobic, and has intentionally pushed for gay and lesbian anti-discrimination legislation that would exclude transgender individuals. So, unfortunately, it is no surprise that most people, including Baitz, are under the false impression that gays and lesbians solely paved the way for transgender rights. However, this makes it all the more important that films depicting this historical moment are accurate.
With that said, Hollywood is infamous for producing whitewashed versions of history in cinematic form. This is one of the film industry’s most offensive marketing techniques as it relies on the assumption that audiences would prefer to see a white actor on screen even if the character and/or historical figure is not white. As recently as a few months ago, the movie Aloha had a white woman portray the character Allison Ng, who is supposed to be a quarter Chinese and a quarter Hawaiian.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with using a fictional narrative as a lens to observe a historical event. If Baitz finds it easier to write from the viewpoint of a white, cisgender, gay man, there is certainly nothing wrong with creating such a story. However, it is irresponsible to use that narrative to distort history by minimizing the work of some of the great leaders of the LGBT movement.
Considering all of these factors, there is a very small chance that Stonewall isn’t the whitewashed, historically inaccurate film many people expect it to be. The filmmakers may be scrambling in post-production to try to fix all of the issues people see with the film, but it’s unlikely they will manage to fix the most egregious errors.
However, there is a silver lining to this story. Another film, Happy Birthday, Marsha, about some of the actual leaders of the 1969 Stonewall Riots like Johnson and Rivera has received many donations in response to the Stonewall trailer.
Instead of wasting your $15 on a movie ticket to see an erroneous film, consider helping the folks producing Happy Birthday, Marsha complete post-production by making a tax-deductible donation.
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