Thursday, October 1, 2015

My Look At Stonewall

Written by Chris Jarvis

First there was excitement and anticipation.

There was a big screen adaptation coming to theaters called STONEWALL. This seminal moment in LGBT history was finally going to get the major, big screen treatment it deserved. This wasn’t a small independent film. This was from director Roland Emmerich, responsible for summer blockbusters like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and Stargate. Despite the obvious tonal difference, it was a major director helming a major motion picture about the moment in 1969 that is commonly referred to as the starting point of the modern gay rights movement. It was incredible news.

Then the trailer came out.

It was just a two minute trailer, but animosity immediately burst forth on the internet. A young, handsome white boy at the center of the story of Stonewall? We know that the majority of the people who frequented the bar on Christopher street where it all started were people of color, drag queens and transvestites. So why did the story apparently center around a white boy? It didn’t help that in the trailer the main character appeared to throw the first brick that incited the crowd to riot on that historic night. Apparently the director had whitewashed LGBT history, and the outrage blew up. Explanations from the director, writer and actors only fueled the fire, and a loud and constant community group of voices urged and even demanded a boycott.

I immediately started asking questions. Could we at least see the movie before we roast it? Trailers are the product of studios, rarely from the director, and are often not representative of the film. I have a real opposition to mob mentality, which is how I was perceiving it, and I have a major objection to denouncing anything that's unseen.

I remembered the same thing happening, not long ago, with the film The Imitation Game, which was about Alan Turing. People were outraged, before the film came out, and claimed that his homosexuality was written out of the film. I debated the same when that happened, asking people if we could see the film before we judged it based on a few words on the internet. No luck. People had decided the film was deserving of a boycott. I didn’t see the film until the DVD came out, but it was a beautiful film that dealt intelligently with Turing’s sexual orientation, his struggle, society’s prejudice and his eventual suicide. His homosexuality was all through the movie. It was recognized by the Academy. It's a film I think everyone should see.

Still, after many debates over Stonewall, I stopped taking people on and instead sat back and waited, hoping the film didn’t do what people were saying.

Then the reviews came out.

With very few exceptions, the reviews ravaged the film. Many were the most negative reviews I’ve ever read. Not only about the apparent whitewashing everyone had been predicting, but vicious in terms of acting and writing. I actually only read one positive review. I
t appeared the outrage was on target.

Then a friend asked if I wanted to go. I knew the film was only going to be available in Fresno for a week, and regardless of the overwhelming evidence I hate to take a stand on something I haven’t seen. So we went.

Here’s the irony. The movie isn’t about Stonewall.

The marketing team is an abysmal failure for the way this film was portrayed. It’s so not about Stonewall that the most glaring mistake is that the film is named Stonewall. I’m not sure why it is, whether it’s the name and historic recognition or not, but it's a massive failure on the part of the director, the studio, the writer, anyone who was involved in the decision to name this movie after a critically important moment in LGBT history. Of course I couldn’t have read every reaction to the film, either before or after, but I never saw anyone point out the fact that the Stonewall riots are in fact just one of the backgrounds of the film, and it’s not what this movie is about. Even the poster, with large words, WHERE PRIDE BEGAN, is very misleading. This movie isn’t about that.

People were furious that any director would change our history, and recast the real life characters in a more “acceptable” way to the general public. Ironically, if this film had been named just about anything other than Stonewall, I don’t think most of this outrage would have happened. This film is about a character and his struggle. He just happens to be in New York at the time of the riots.

It’s kind of like saying that Forrest Gump is about the Vietnam War.

Briefly, the movie is about Danny, a Midwestern white, gay teen who is thrown out of his family home after being caught with the football star in a car in the dark of night, doing you know what. The boy moves to New York because he senses safety in the big city. He doesn’t find much of it, but he does find a community of LGBT people. Most of the people he encounters are people of color, as well as drag queens and transvestites who sell their bodies in order to survive, which he does as well. He also meets the few people at the time who are beginning to fight for gay rights. The Stonewall Riots are in the film, but it’s brief. In fact, as soon as the first night of fighting is over, that story point is over and the boy leaves the city. This is Danny’s story. The riots are maybe ten or fifteen minutes of the film.

The second grave mistake by the filmmakers, after the name of the film, is that Danny, the main, white character, throws the first brick that incite the riots. Although there is no definitive truth to who was the first to throw what that night (stories differ even among those still alive that were there), it was a major misjudgment to put the first stone into the hands of a beautiful, white Midwestern boy who was simply visiting the city. The real heroes of that night were the young people of color, the drag queens and the trans community. I can see why the writer did it, because it’s an important shift for the main character, a turning point for him, but that could have been accomplished in any number of other ways (it's called writing, people) without him being the apparent spark to the fire. 

It was a really bad move.

Clearly, the ravages by the community and the critics have accomplished what they wanted. The film is a massive failure financially. I think that’s unfortunate, mostly for young people who don’t know anything about the riots. This movie, while schmaltzy in places, is not a bad film. I think it would have opened a lot of eyes as to how bad it was for gay people in the late 1960’s, when it was illegal to be gay, when films were shown in high school about the “homosexual pedophiles” lurking in parks and driving by, and the cops could beat you up just for looking at them wrong, with no one to defend you. This was before any gay rights, when we were literally labeled as mentally ill. Young people need to know what it was like, and most of the young people we talk to during history lessons through Gay Central Valley have no idea what the Stonewall Riots were. Movies like this would have provided a very accessible way to get them to at least start thinking about it.

Some of the critics have blasted the main character for certain reactions and choices. My memory is very clear of that time in history and I believed almost every bit of it. His character makes choices based on the innocence of the times. No one even talked about the LGBT community back then. There was nothing to go on. It was uncharted territory.

I don’t condone whitewashing, or rewriting history to suit the filmmaker. But this is a movie, not a documentary, and a big budget movie as well. It’s not an independent film. We can find historical inaccuracies in any number of mainstream movies. I think the problem with this one was naming it something that means a lot to a lot of people, when in fact the movie was never about that to begin with.

The end credits include photos of the real life people who were characters in the film, such as Marsha P Johnson, and provides their history after Stonewall. I wondered, though, if it was tacked on after the outrage in order to try to appease people. It felt false, and would have been appropriate if the movie had followed the stories of those involved that night, the history of the events, but again, that’s not what this movie went after.

Hopefully someone will make a big budget film specifically about the Stonewall Riots and the next couple of years when the gay rights movement came to life and started us on the path to equality. That would make an amazing and important film in the right hands. Oscar material.

But that’s not what this film is about.

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