Emmerich’s Controversial Stonewall Trailer and the Backlash
As we’ve mentioned before, Hollywood has neither the time nor the patience for original ideas. When movies cost as much as they do to make, it’s better for everyone involved to just pull out the oversized checkbook and start paying for rights you can use and twist to your own purposes. While comic books, zombies, and remakes rule the day, the best place to mine for ideas is and has always been good old fashioned real life.
Recently, director Roland Emmerich of Independence Day, Godzilla (1998), and The Day After Tomorrow has decided to move away from large scale urban destruction for um… small scale urban destruction with Stonewall, a dramatization of the 1969 riot at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. The Stonewall Riots are considered a demarcation for the start of what we know today as the LGBTQ Movement. The first Stonewall trailer dropped a few days ago and has brought with it a measure of controversy due to claims of it “whitewashing” and “cis-washing” (cisgender means to self identify with the gender one was assigned at birth) of actual, historical events, and has even sparked a petition to boycott the film that at the time of this writing has reached 20,000 signatures.
The major problem with this trailer and by extension, film, is that outside of just having a white, cisgendered, midwestern protagonist coming to the big city and a few too many white faces and cis actors overall, is the fact that in the trailer, that white, midwestern protagonist is seen throwing what seems to be that seminal “first heel (or brick)” rather than a 17-year-old Latina trans woman by the name of Sylvia Rivera who did it in real life. Now it could be a separate scene or a case of the marketing department doing their best to add enough sizzling white comfort to get more people into theater seats. However, it looks as if it could also be a heavy handed attempt to rewrite white, cisgendered saviors into a history that doesn’t necessarily include them, making the film an egregious piece of actual, bar none, money grabbing, historical cultural appropriation. Something far more insidious and accurately cultural appropriation than Iggy Azalea’s rhymes or Kylie Jenner’s braids.
To put this issue more succinctly, imagine that instead of Martin Luther King, Selma was about a White man that moved to Selma, Alabama in 1964, befriended its Black citizens and organized them to march with help from other White leaders of the local civil rights movement. Then, in the trailer, this mass of White activists were all gathered at the front of march to the capital fending off blows from White police officers.
A Labor of Love
What hurts about watching the reaction to this trailer is the rather obvious fact that doing a picture like Stonewall is an obvious labor of love for Emmerich. An openly gay Hollywood big shot, this man’s films alone have grossed over $3 Billion. There’s no way something as niche as Stonewall is planning to make the White House Down or 2012 money. Ergo, if it ain’t for the money, he is specifically making it because he feels it needs to be made.
Once, he even donated $150,000 of his own money to the preservation of gay and lesbian film, and now he’s putting up his time and artistic license to add to that esteemed library of films. I also know it’s a labor of love for him because he literally said it in his first response on the Stonewall controversy on his Facebook page. In a response that many have been critical of, Emmerich made a play for people to reserve judgement until seeing the film saying that when they do they will see that Stonewall “deeply honors the real-life activists who were there — including Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Ray Castro.” Only time will tell if this is true or not.
Unfortunately, labor of love or no, people have a right to voice their concerns if they feel a piece of art is off the mark. This is even more acute for a project that could be used as a sort pop culture educational in coming years. When teachers in America want to share information and emotion about historic events they’re going to reach for Stonewall like they did with Roots, The Crucible, and Romeo and Juliet back in my day. This film will one day be a piece of history about a piece of history. It would be irresponsible to approach it as anything less.
It’s Just A Trailer
One of the most prevalent arguments against boycotting the film is that this first trailer only provides a small sliver of the overall project. While this is a lucid point, we have to remember that Hollywood exists to make money, and thrives off selling our own stories back to us to do it. The United States is still the biggest cultural exporter in the world. When we don’t fact check, boycott, campaign against, or simply refuse to see something we don’t like the look of, we are offering a sort of silent support.
This is obviously even more important for movies that represent or tell the story of a particular community. It is irrelevant if it is a dramatization or documentary. Anyone who makes anything can be taken to task over it, and should be when it’s budget is in the millions. Whether its the film itself, the teaser trailer, or just the announcement, if we feel it’s a problem, we should absolutely voice those concerns in a vocal and legal way. Moreover, when we’re wrong or make a mistake, we must own up to it. While it seems “fair” to wait until the movie comes out before getting upset, that still assumes money will be spent on it.
The definition of capitalism to me is “to vote with your dollars.” If you pay to see a movie you think looks stupid or wrong, you are basically telling hollywood you don’t think it’s stupid or wrong. Instead, you’re telling them this is the kind of thing you’re down to pay for. So when the trailer is somehow wrong or historically inaccurate, or you feel you have been edited out of your own story, it is your civic responsibility get involved.
The best we can hope for is that Stonewall is a great film that does justice to the history of the Stonewall Riots and properly represents those that were there who suffered for the rights we enjoy today. After all, we’ve all got a sudden influx of weddings to attend in 2015 as evidence of the movements continued efforts over the past 45 years. This stuff matters. Hopefully, those of us less directly affected by this can also continue speak up against misrepresentation, white washing and appropriation and make continued strides to own our art and culture while continuing by show how things should be done and making stuff whenever we can.