By Gwendolyn Ann Smith
Director Roland Emmerich has released his latest disaster movie. This time, though, rather than space aliens blowing up American landmarks, or a freak ice age freezing American landmarks, or even Godzilla entangling hirself in American landmarks, it’s the movie itself that ends up the disaster.
Emmerich’s stab at making a film about the Stonewall rebellion will be long remembered on every web-based listicle as one of the worst attempts at making a historical re-creation, up there with Lifetime’s “Liz & Dick” biopic or Oliver Stone’s horrid “Alexander.”
The film was panned practically from the day it was announced, as people wondered why a man best known for blockbuster disaster porn would be doing a film about Stonewall. It wasn’t until the first trailer came out, however, that people could really see how bad things could be.
For nearly as long as the riot itself, there has been a debate as to who in the community “owns” what happened at that bar in Greenwich Village. The Stonewall rebellion became a pivotal moment of the Gay Liberation movement of the 1970s, which included the whitewashing of transwomen of color — amongst others — from the narrative.
Over the last decade, the history of Stonewall has become much more inclusive, recognizing the importance of people such as Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Storme DeLarverie, and others who were a part of the riot.
Enter Roland Emmerich. Seemingly unsatisfied to tell a story centering on the heroes who were there, he feels the need to cut an imaginary protagonist out of whole cloth. His stonewall hero is a young, attractive, Caucasian man who is intentionally in contrast to the others he has cast.
Danny Winters — who appears to have walked off the set of a “Rebel Without A Cause” remake only to find himself in a casting call for an off-Broadway production of “Hair” — is the typical “farm boy from Indiana who hopped a bus to the big city.” It’s a trope large enough that another character alludes to it. That character is “Ray/Ramona,” a character who is credited second on the bill and yet still doesn’t manage to have a last name.
The film is little more than a coming of age tale for Danny Winters, set against a backdrop of the riot, with the character even being handed the first brick to throw. The films itself is awkward and does little to actually provide a real sense of the importance of that moment.
Emmerich defended his film from critics of the trailer. In an interview by Shannon Keating of BuzzFeed, Emmerich seemed surprised by the reaction. “When (criticism) happened it wasn’t about the film, it was about the trailer,” he said. “And I thought, ‘That’s not right.'”
But the trailer really was a good example of what the movie would be, with the oh-so-white and heteronormative Danny Winters serving as some sort of savior for the trans, queer, people of color surrounding him on a set that resembles Christopher Street.
In response to the critics, Emmerich has this to say: “You have to understand one thing: I didn’t make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people,” he said. “I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, (Danny Winters) is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting.”
He also said, “As a director you have to put yourself in your movies, and I’m white and gay.”
And there’s the big problem.
I’m not saying that you need a Roman emperor to film a story about Nero, but if you cannot see a story to tell without having to impose your gender or race on it, perhaps you are not the right person to tell this story. If you have to whitewash a story in order to try and fit it into a demographic that will likely not be interested in a story unless you do so, then there’s a very good chance they won’t come at all regardless.
For decades, movies about transgender people have featured actors and actresses chosen from a heteronormative viewpoint.
John Hansen portrayed Christine Jorgensen in 1970, Hilary Swank very nicely played Brandon Teena in “Boys Don’t Cry,” and later this year we’ll get to see Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe. These and many others give us a mixed bag of good and not-so-good portrayals, but where are the transgender actors and actresses? Why must transgender people so often be portrayed by members of their birth genders, rather than by those of their own hard-won ones?
Not only this, but where are the movies about transgender people of color? Why isn’t there a film about Marsha P. Johnson being released by a major studio, or a big budget biopic on Miss Major Griffin-Gracy? There are some great community-funded ones on both in the works, but in the era where “Straight Outta Compton” can break the box office, why must we endure the Stonewall mess?
Oh, and let’s speak about the box office for a moment. Emmerich’s film isn’t a “disaster flick” simply for bad story telling, but for its first week’s receipts. The film cost an estimated $17 million to create, yet it’s first weekend brought in an embarrassing $122,414. Even “Ishtar,” a film that is practically synonymous with bad movie making, made $4.2 million and opened at #1.
So perhaps this film can help us turn a corner. Much like Emmerich attempted, let me say that this has united both straight, white males and trans people of color. It’s not “straight enough” nor is it “queer enough.”
Now, let’s see a real story about Stonewall, and send Danny Winters packing.