Prominent gay rights activist and “The Normal Heart” playwright Larry Kramer has responded to the controversy over the new movie “Stonewall.”
In a comment about a Facebook post by “Stonewall” director Roland Emmerich, Kramer, 80, advised Emmerich not to pay attention to “crazies” who are boycotting the film on the grounds that it whitewashes history.
The fervor about the film began when the trailer was released last week. Protesters have launched multiple petitions pledging to avoid the movie. A Gay-Straight Alliance Network petition has netted more than 20,000 signatures and a Care2 petition boasts more than 15,000 signatures.
People across the Internet erupted over the erasure of queer women of color from key roles in the Stonewall riots. One scene in particular, in which Jeremy Irvine’s character, Danny Winters, is seen throwing a brick that sets off the evening’s events, drew the brunt of the backlash. Stormé DeLarverie, a butch lesbian who died last year, is credited by some with throwing the first punch. Others wondered why the film wouldn’t center on Marsha P. Johnson, a black transwoman who co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with activist Sylvia Rivera. Both were real-life instrumental figures at Stonewall, and some eyewitnesses say it was Johnson who threw that first brick.
Critics lashed out at Emmerich (“Independence Day,” “2012,” “White House Down”) for focusing the story of the six days of rioting and protests that now mark the beginning of the modern-day LGBT rights movement around a fictive “straight-acting” white male character from Kansas, presumably to make the story more palatable to a wider audience. It’s being released Sept. 25, which makes it prime award-season bait. SheWired, a site aimed primarily at queer women, accused Emmerich of attempting to “rewrite history.”
Here’s Kramer’s post in full:
don’t listen to the crazies. for some reason there is a group of “activists” that insists on maintaining their prime importance and participation during this riot. unfortunately there seems no one left alive to say “it wasnt that way at all”, or “who are or where the f— were you.” as with so much history there is no way to “prove” a lot of stuff, which allows artists such as yourself (and me I might add) to take essences and attempt to find and convey meaning and truth. i sincerely hope this boycott your film s— peters out. we are not dealing with another “Cruising” here. keeping your film from being seen is only hurting ourselves. good luck and thank you for your passion. larry kramer
There’s plenty of evidence to dispel what Kramer is saying, including footage and photographs of queer black and brown women being hauled into paddy wagons. Stonewall wasn’t a prehistoric event; we’ve yet to mark its 50th anniversary.
The CBC News documentary, “How We Got Gay,” which first aired in June, described the scene as “an angry mob of drag queens, mixed-race, black and young people fight back against a police raid.”
“There were lots of what we called ‘A trainers,’ that is, people who came on the A train from Harlem,” writer Edmund White told director Marc de Guerre. “People had nothing left to lose. These guys had been fighting the police all their lives, and now they were doing it as gays, but they had done it as oppressed minorities before anyway.”
Judging a film by its trailer alone is almost always dangerous business, and Emmerich has implored his audience to trust him. There are queer women of color in the film, including a character named Marsha P. Johnson. In the trailer, they’re presented as supporting characters who lead Danny through his journey to the heart of the gay rights movement.
Is it possible that Emmerich employed Danny as a trojan horse character in the way Jenji Kohan used Piper Chapman in “Orange is the New Black?” Sure.
Is it likely? Well, here’s what Emmerich posted on Facebook Thursday:
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.
We know the stakes are high enough that shielding “Stonewall’s” apparent shortcomings with the “it’s not a documentary” claim is specious. Two filmmakers, Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel, wrote and directed the short narrative film “Happy Birthday Marsha!” which stars Mya Taylor, one of the stars of “Tangerine.” “Happy Birthday Marsha!,” now in post-production, is about the hours of Johnson’s life before the
Stonewall riots began, and her friendship with Rivera. It was funded by Women Make Movies. As we’ve seen time and again, Emmerich’s decision to create Danny Winters and cast a cisgender white man to play him, rather than using the lives of Johnson, DeLarverie or Rivera as an entry point for the larger story, probably came down to money. Studios are notoriously tight-fisted when it comes to funding films starring unknown actors, and even more so when said actors are people of color.
“If you can cast a central character with one or two famous actors, you have a good chance to get the movie financed, but in my case, I knew there was not really one central character in the Stonewall riots,” Emmerich told Vulture in July. “I think we represented it very well. We have drag queens, lesbians, we have everything in the film because we wanted to portray a broader image of what ‘gay’ means.”
Now Emmerich and “Stonewall” distributor Roadside Attractions are banking on the hopes that their financial strategy of marketing to a straighter, whiter audience than the band of outsiders who were central to the riots will pay off. Meanwhile, multiple petitions argue that “Stonewall” deserves the Marsha P. treatment: “Pay it no mind.”