Why You Should Avoid Watching “Stonewall,” the Movie Portrayal of the 1969 Stonewall Riots By Allison Pinski
The Stonewall riots of June 27-28, 1969 marked the beginning of the LGBT movement. These riots marked a very violent clash between New York City police officers, and the gay and trans party-goers at the infamous Stonewall Inn (a prominent gay bar). Members of the New York LGBT community clashed with police, starting the gay liberation movement that is still alive today. Protesters (many of the forerunners being PoC and transwomen) aimed for sexual orientation rights and liberties, free of persecution from the predominantly white and cishetero American society during the 1950’s and 60’s. More information on the riots can be read through Columbia University’s webpage and this PBS piece.
The Stonewall riots are one of the most important events in the history of the American LGBT movement. Many would assume that a movie adaptation of the events would bring more attention to the cause, and reach an audience not otherwise affected by LGBT concerns (i.e. the cishetero community). Many survivors of the riots should be ecstatic to see Sylvia Rivera, and Marsha P. Johnson, two very important transwomen of color who heavily advocated for LGBT and WoC rights throughout their lifetimes. Rivera and Johnson, alongside many men and women, risked their own lives to fight for their neglected rights as U.S. citizens (despite being gay, transgender, and/or PoC). Stonewall shows a diverse group of people (both cis and trans, white and PoC) uniting to fight for their rights and the LGBT movement.
But that is not “Stonewall,” the film adaption set to be released on September 25, 2015 according to its IMDb page, the two most important figures of the riots (Rivera and Johnson), are not even the main focus of the films. Instead, Hollywood will revolve around Trevor (played by white cisgender Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and his fictional involvement in the riots. White men will portray transwomen characters (instead of actual transwomen PoC actresses?). While Rivera isn’t even mentioned in the list of characters on the IMDb page, at least Johnson is. Except Johnson, a transwoman of color, will be played by male actor Otoja Abit (at least he’s African-American, right?).
I’ve gone through the IMDb list of actors/actresses to determine just how much artistic liberties Hollywood took. The first ten actor/character pairings are listed below;
-Jonathan Rhys Meyes (white male actor) will play Trevor (assumed white male character)
-Ron Perlman (white male actor) will play Ed Murphy (assumed white male character)
-Joey King (white female actress) will play Phoebe (assumed white female character)
-Jeremy Irvine (white male actor) will play Danny (assumed white male character)
-Jonny Beauchamp (PoC male actor) will play Ray Castro (assumed PoC male character)
-Caleb Landry Jones (white male actor) will play Orphan Annie (assumed White female character)
-Matt Craven (white male actor) will play Deputy Seymour Pine (assumed white male character)
-David Cubitt (white male actor) will play Coach Winters (assumed white male character)
-Atticus Mitchell (white male actor) will play Matt (assumed white male character)
-Mark Camacho (white male actor) will play Fat Tony (assumed white male character)
Based on these actors/actresses and characters alone, the majority of the film is composed of white male actors and white male characters. Abit, who plays Johnson, barely made the top twenty characters list on IMDb.
In addition, the director of the film Roland Emmerich, released a statement on his Facebook page explaining his decision to use a white cisgender male as the lead in the movie. The post can be read from his page, or here below where I’ve pasted it.
“When I first learned about the Stonewall Riots through my work with the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, I was struck that the circumstances that lead to LGBT youth homelessness today are pretty much the same as they were 45 years ago. The courageous actions of everyone who fought against injustice in 1969 inspired me to tell a compelling, fictionalized drama of those days centering on homeless LGBT youth, specifically a young midwestern gay man who is kicked out of his home for his sexuality and comes to New York, befriending the people who are actively involved in the events leading up to the riots and the riots themselves. I understand that following the release of our trailer there have been initial concerns about how this character’s involvement is portrayed, but when this film - which is truly a labor of love for me - finally comes to theaters, audiences will see that it 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. We are all the same in our struggle for acceptance.”
I find it strange that Emmerich says the film will honor the real-life heroes (a lot of whom were transgender), but fails to both incorporate these trans heroes, and cast transgender actors and actresses to play them. If Emmerich really wanted to honor them, he would actually include Rivera and Johnson as the leads, and have them played by transwomen of color. It’s 2015, this isn’t a radical idea.
Why should you boycott this film? While it is good Hollywood has chosen to develop a movie around an event so vital to the LGBT community, the characters and actors/actresses chosen for the film completely undermine its message. I am not surprised by the complete erasure of the transmen and, more importantly, the transwomen who were so heavily involved in the riots. To make matter worse, the few transwomen who will be shown in the movie appear to be played by men instead of actual trans actresses (they’re out there!). AND there are very few PoC characters, which is not true of the actual Stonewall riots at all.
I don’t expect Hollywood to make a movie with 100% historical accuracy, but this interpretation of the riots is entirely unacceptable. It erases the very important voices that worked so hard to further the LGBT movement, namely Rivera and Johnson. And without these two women (as well as all the other transwomen and PoC involved in the actual event), what is the point of creating the movie? Why tell a story that is just going to be whitewashed, as well as cisgenderized? This type of historical revisionism just cements the mistreatment of these marginalized people.
Instead of watching “Stonewall,” consider watching (and donating) a more representative and accurate movie based on the riots; “Happy Birthday Marsha” . This independent film project desperately needs help raising the remaining funds to make the film, so consider donating here if you believe in the cause.
***NOTE: Below are a list of my sources, and other articles/pages you can read if you are interested in this topic. The opinion expressed in this post is entirely my own, and I have no affiliation to the “Stonewall” movie or IMDb or "Happy Birthday Marsha,"
The Stonewall Riot and Its Aftermath from Columbia University
“Stonewall Riots: The Beginning of the LGBT Movement” from The Leadership Conference
Introduction: Stonewall Uprising from PBS
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project
“Meet the Trans Women of Color Who Helped Put Stonewall On the Map” by Jamilah King
Happy Birthday Marsha