Historical haze


Cast of Stonewall (2015)

Films are chiefly produced to entertain. Directors, writers and actors work their backsides off to please their targeted audience, but in the quest to obtain each viewer’s affection, the original plot can be easily lost.

One of the most common types of movies is the historical epic. Films of this genre are based on actual events from the past that can be supported factually, though many are enhanced with bits of fiction sprinkled in to move the story along more smoothly or to maintain the audience’s attention where it might otherwise begin to stray. However, when historical accuracy is sacrificed, conflict can follow.

Although arguments surrounding artistic freedom and disregard for truth are not particularly new, recent films, including the upcoming drama, Stonewall, have sparked a fervent controversy between those who believe in direct historical translation and those who prefer to leave complete flexibility to the director.

Around 46 years ago, in June of 1969, a six-day uprising of LGBT Americans against New York police officers began. This event became iconic in LGBT history, so narrative accounts of the story serve a role in teaching new generations about the struggles of the past.

According to director Roland Emmerich, the movie Stonewall aims to reveal the strife faced by a fictitious gay man discharged from his home due to his parent’s intolerance of his sexuality. Many advocates of the LGBT community claim that while this may be representative of the lives of some of the participants in the Stonewall riots, it does not cover the majority. Others disagree, stating that white, cisgender gay men were the dominant demographic at the Stonewall Inn. A third party asserts that accurate portrayal is generally unimportant regardless of whichever group led the rebellion.

There is little evidence which can prove who started the revolt, but certain figures like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, both drag queens of color, are often said to have been active in the conflict. Whether or not they were actually there, although Emmerich himself believes they were, many advocates disagree with the movie’s focus on a white, cisgender male.

Why must this story be told from a white man’s perspective? Why is he the audience interlocutor? Because of LGBTQ homelessness? Queer youth of color are more likely to be homeless than their white counterparts. Stonewall was incited by these people because they had to fight since for them there is no promise that ‘it gets better.’ This is about a cultural imagination that can’t conceive of a world that does not center on whiteness and refuses [to] represent the world otherwise,” Ricardo Gamboa, a filmmaker at New York University, said.

“I feel the writer’s character is the worst choice he could have possibly made. Whitewashing events just to make them easier for Caucasian people to watch is poor writing and offensive to [people of color.] The queer and trans POC at Stonewall need to be represented realistically and not in a way to appeal to Caucasian individuals. Stonewall’s protagonist is not historically correct.” Bri Macklin (10) said.

Emmerich acknowledged these worries in a Facebook post.

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,” Emmerich said.

This statement put the questions of some to rest, but it also raised the suspicions of others. Many members of the LGBT community who do not fit the demographic portrayed in Stonewall have responded, denouncing his claim that the conflicts they face are equal.

Acceptance? We are NOT the same in the struggle and many people in the queer community (including myself) have no desire to be accepted. Rather we desire to live in our own truths, seek out our own liberation, be able to access healthcare, public accommodations, education, credit and employment without the fear of discrimination. Acceptance is for those who desire affirmation from a system that was NEVER meant to include us. You can keep your acceptance and you can keep your fictionalized story. I’ll continue working towards liberation for me and for my queer family,” Julian Kevon Glover, a past worker at the National Center for Transgender Equality, said.

A large portion of the LGBT+ community is planning to boycott the film, but others worry that this may in turn express a lack of interest in movies based around the lives of members in this demographic.

Should Emmerich be obligated to stick with only concrete evidence surrounding the uprising, or should he be given the freedom to tell this story in any way he wishes? Is it wise to boycott movies like Stonewall, or is it better to support them because of the artistic liberties taken?

Stonewall is not the first movie to blur history and it will likely not be the last.