The real history of an uprising

October 6, 2015

Reviews of the movie Stonewall have been negative, but the Hollywood film does offer a chance to talk about the real history of LGBT resistance, says Keegan O’Brien.

GIVEN ALL the negative reviews, I was bracing myself for a real disaster when I walked in to see Stonewall, the new movie directed by Roland Emmerich about the riots in June 1969 at the Stonewall Inn in New York City that gave birth to the modern LGBT movement. But despite Vanity Fair's claims, I didn't find the film to be "terribly offensive and offensively terrible."

While Stonewall has some significant problems--the two biggest being how Emmerich chooses to frame the story and key aspects of history that he leaves out--the film has several positive accomplishments that I think it would be a mistake to ignore.

I should say from the get-go that I'm not a film critic, and I don't have any cinematic expertise. My goal is to survey the film's political accomplishments and shortcomings in portraying the legacy of Stonewall, while also weaving in the real history of what took place.

The film does a good job at portraying what life was like for LGBT people pre-Stonewall. For many young people who've come of age in the past decade, it can be hard to imagine a time when LGBT people were widely despised by society, when gay bars were illegal and regularly targeted by police raids, and being caught almost definitely resulted in rejection from friends and family and being labeled a sexual psychopath--a designation that got you blacklisted and legally barred from employment in most private and government sector occupations.

Jonny Beauchamp in Stonewall
Jonny Beauchamp in Stonewall

Stonewall brings that not-too-distant past to life and gives viewers a sense of just how much things have changed in the past 50 years. In a country where LGBT history is completely absent from public school curriculums, and events like Pride have become thoroughly corporatized, it's not insignificant that large numbers of young people can now have access to this kind of history.

Secondly, Stonewall is the first mainstream Hollywood film I've ever seen that features a multiracial band of homeless LGBT youth as the primary set of characters. Emmerich doesn't hold back on showing the brutality and hardship of living on the streets and what these resilient young people have to go through in order to survive.

One scene in particular in which Ray (a composite of trans pioneer and Latina activist Sylvia Rivera), after being badly beaten by a client, opens up to Danny (the film's main character) about the emotional and psychological trauma of growing up poor, gay and on the streets is particularly powerful and a rare moment in Hollywood cinema. It's refreshing to see a mainstream movie focus on the lives and issues of homeless LGBT youth at a time when most large and influential LGBT organizations continue to neglect the problem entirely.

Review: Movies

Stonewall, directed by Roland Emmerich, starring Jeremy Irvine, Jonny Beauchamp and Joey King.

Thirdly, Emmerich's film unequivocally takes the side of the rioters and emphasizes the power that collective rebellions have on changing society and the course of history. At a time when urban rebellions against racism and police brutality are being demonized as nothing but senseless acts of violence, Stonewall gives activists a chance to tell a different story: that riots are a justified expression of accumulated bitterness, anger and frustration at years of repression and injustice, and a form of collective protest that can actually work.

MANY HAVE claimed that it's precisely the portrayal of the events that took place at Stonewall that is the most problematic aspect of the film. Activists have accused Emmerich of whitewashing history and erasing the fact that it was trans women of color who initiated, led and made up the bulk of the riots that night.

Although I disagree with the way Emmerich chose to frame the story and the primary emphasis he places on the white, masculine, conventionally attractive, fictionalized protagonist, I think the focus on "who threw the first brick" is misguided. Ultimately, there is no consensus on who exactly started the riot. Research based on interviews with firsthand participants done by numerous historians show a number of differing accounts of what exactly took place.

Getting lost in an endless debate over the minute details of who threw the first brick misses the forest for the tree by losing sight of the larger political and social developments taking place in the late 1960s that made Stonewall, or something like it, almost inevitable.

Although I share activists' frustration with the way LGBT history has been whitewashed, the assertion that trans women of color led the riots or made up most of its participants just isn't historically accurate.

The Stonewall drew in a wide cross section of the LGBT community, including street kids, young working-class guys, college students, some middle-class professionals and a smattering of lesbians.

The street kids of the Village who turned the Stonewall into a home away from home were a multiracial, eclectic and overlapping mix of homeless youth, sex workers, drag queens and trans women, primarily made up of Puerto Ricans, Blacks and whites, who were mostly Irish and Italian.

It was LGBT people's shared experience of oppression and unrelenting harassment at the hands of police that created the basis for people to unite across their differences and fight back collectively. Street youth and trans women, many of them people of color, did play prominent roles at Stonewall, but the riots included a wide cross section of New York's gay world, including many white gay men, which is what gave the rebellion its collective strength.

In spite of the film's real shortfalls, Stonewall, in my opinion, manages to get this part right.

STONEWALL HAS several significant problems that hurt the film's ability to convey the riot's real legacy.

First, Emmerich divorces Stonewall from the historical context of the 1960s and the social and political developments that gave rise to it.

By the end of the decade, even though the U.S. was witnessing the largest social upheavals since the Great Depression, gay people remained trapped in the closet and under near police state conditions, especially in New York City where the mayoral race led to a new law-and-order crackdown against LGBT people.

The increasing radicalism in the small but growing Homophile Movement and the confidence of some of the most demonized people in society at the time to stand up and fight back against the police didn't come from nowhere. The civil rights and Black Power movements, the anti-Vietnam War movement and the Black urban rebellions taking place across the country transformed American society by the late 1960s. On that summer night, that radicalization finally erupted on Christopher Street.

Second, although Emmerich conveys what took place on the first night of the riots, he leaves the most important part of Stonewall, the Gay Liberation Movement that it gave birth to, to just a few slides at the end of the movie.

Stonewall marked a sharp break from the past and a qualitative turning point in the gay movement not only because of the continuous rioting in the streets against police but because activists were able to seize the moment and give an organized expression to the spontaneous uprising that encapsulated the militancy of the era. In doing so, gay liberationists broke the dam of political and social isolation and catapulted the gay movement out of the margins and into the open.

By giving short shrift to what came out of Stonewall, and all the unsung, forgotten heroes of Gay Liberation, Emmerich misses out on a chapter of LGBT history that holds some of the most important lessons for activists today.

Third, Emmerich's decision to center Danny as the central protagonist was a major mistake, and one that clearly backfired on him big time.

Although characters like Ray have a prominent place in the film, they are never portrayed with the same depth as Danny. While we are shown the awful chain of events that led Danny to being kicked out by his family in rural Indiana and left homeless on the streets of the Village, we are never given the same insight into the lives of other characters. As a result, Ray and Marsha are unfairly relegated to a secondary status in Emmerich's story.

Emmerich justified his decision in an interview with Buzzfeed saying, "You have to understand one thing: I didn't make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people." He continues, "I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny's very straight-acting. He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him."

But Emmerich's approach got it wrong, and box office sales prove it. At a moment when the #BlackLivesMatter movement is opening up the largest national discussion about racism in decades and Black trans actresses like Laverne Cox are making the cover of Time magazine, audiences clearly wanted a film that went beyond the standard Hollywood trope and gave more depth and insight into the lives of trans people and people of color.

It's refreshing to see so many people invested in the legacy of Stonewall, but the readiness to entirely dismiss a left-wing film before anyone has actually seen it seems premature to me, and the call to boycott puzzling considering the number of other institutions actually propping up LGBT oppression.

Even with its problems, I think Stonewall is still worth watching. One reason is so that activists can engage in a meaningful debate and discussion about the film that's informed by something other than a two-minute trailer. Another is because it can be used with people who have never been exposed to this history as a way to bring it to life and launch into deeper discussions about the real history of Stonewall and its legacy.

Further Reading

From the archives