Openly gay Hollywood A-lister Roland Emmerich has been very vocal in speaking out against homophobia and racism in the movie business. In 2006, the director gave $150,000 to The Legacy Project in support of gay and lesbian film preservation.
With the release of his new film Stonewall on September 25, Emmerich takes a step back from his usual summer blockbusters (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) and takes a heartfelt look into his community's past. Stonewall is a fictionalized retelling of the legendary Stonewall Riots, the period of a few nights in June 1969 when a collection of gay white men, lesbians, street hustlers, drag queens and transgender New Yorkers banded together to fight police oppression of LGBT people at a popular gay bar, launching the nationwide LGBT equality movement.
In recent weeks, after distributor Roadside Attractions released a two minute trailer, certain factions in the current LGBT community condemned the film, saying that it “whitewashes” history. At issue is the casting of Jeremy Irvine, a white cisgender actor, as Danny Winters, the film's fictional lead. Trans people of color, an integral part of the riots, have been omitted from the film, say critics. More than 25,000 people have signed a petition calling for a boycott of Stonewall.
“I was baffled,” Emmerich during in a telephone interview in which he discussed the protests. “But maybe its a good thing because people will hear about the film. I'm over it.”
The film, Emmerich said, features several portrayals of trans people of color, including a juicy supporting role for actor Otoja Abit as Marsha P. Johnson, a real-life African-American transwoman who participated in the riots.
The main focus of the film, Emmerich said, were the homeless LGBT youth who lived on the streets around the Stonewall Inn.
“I wanted to give a voice to the unsung heroes,” Emmerich said. “The film is about a group of homeless kids, the unsung heroes of Stonewall that no one talks about, but they were definitely there.”
Emmerich explained his decision. “There's a real correlation between then and today,” he said. “40 percent of homeless kids are LGBT. The problem won't go away.”
The filmmaker said he did a great deal of research prior to making Stonewall so that the finished film could be as close to the truth as possible. “Marsha P. Johnson was a unique character,” Emmerich said. “She had to be in the film. She was the only transwoman who was friendly to the street kids, according to research.”
Many important points are made as the story unfolds. When Danny arrives in New York after being thrown out of his home in the Midwest for being gay, its Marsha and the street kids who embrace him. “It's the kids of color who teach the white kid about survival and friendship,” Emmerich points out. “We made the movie out of love. We don't want to offend or whitewash anything. It's our version of the story — it's a combination of how we got our rights and a coming-of-age story.”
As the film progresses, viewers will see that Danny's whiteness, and his ability to “pass” for straight, enables him to get a job and go back to school. These are not available to the queens of color on the street. Emmerich does not shy away from this inconvenient truth.
Emmerich said that at the end of the day, he hopes audiences will be uplifted by Stonewall. “We didn't want to do a story about the kid being destroyed,” said the director. “We gave the film a positive feel. It's celebratory.”
SF Weekly has seen the complete film, and we urge you to do likewise. Stonewall isn't perfect. Lesbians are presented barely as an afterthought, and the film excludes any mention of Brenda P. Howard, an openly bisexual woman who took part in the riots and was instrumental in organizing New York's first Pride Parade soon after. But the specific allegations levied against Stonewall have been greatly exaggerated.
Trans people of color are indeed part of the film. Jonny Beauchamp gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Ray, a.k.a. Ramona, an embittered but kindhearted cross-dressing hustler who is most likely trans. Otaja Abit steals several scenes as Marsha P. Johnson — Abit is particularly memorable in a scene where, in full drag, Marsha socks the big burly neighborhood bully (Ron Perlman) across the jaw. The film also takes a jab at gay Republicans in the person of conservative gay activist Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who is portrayed as a two-faced hypocrite and a sell-out.
Give Stonewall a chance. It's success or failure could determine whether or not more films of this type are made. There are many more Stonewall stories yet to be told.
Stonewall opens on September 25.