The Stonewall riots that occurred in Greenwich Village in 1969 have emerged as a watershed moment in the history of LGBT rights. But a new movie that examines the origins of the historic moment is coming under fire for allegedly “whitewashing” events that critics say took a far more diverse group of people than depicted in the film.
In a controversial new interview, Stonewall director Roland Emmerich defends the film, explaining that his decision to have the film center around a young, white fictional male character seemed to be the best way to attract straight people to the story – and educate them about the event.
“You have to understand one thing: I didn’t make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people,” Emmerich, who previously helmed blockbusters like Independence Day and White House Down, told Buzzfeed. “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.”
Emmerich, who is openly gay and said he chose to make the film in part after volunteering at a Los Angeles LGBT center, also admitted he approached the film from his own perspective.
“As a director you have to put yourself in your movies, and I’m white and gay,” he said.
The film centers around a character named Danny (Jeremy Irvine) who travels to New York City from Indiana, where he was ostracized by his family after getting caught fooling around with the high school football quarterback. Once in NYC, he is embraced by a non-white group of gender-queer street kids who spur him into action, eventually inspiring him to hurl the first brick to kick off the riots.
The fictional retelling has angered certain members of LGBT community, who give special credit to transgender and lesbian women of color for their role in the origins of the historic riots.
In a recent interview with Autostraddle, Miss Major Griffin-Gracie, a black trans woman present at the time of the riots, said “I’m sorry, but the last time I checked, the only gay people I saw hanging around there were across the street cheering. They were not the ones getting slugged or having stones thrown at them. It’s just aggravating. And hurtful! For all the girls who are no longer here who can’t say anything, this movie just acts like they didn’t exist.”
Emmerich told Buzzfeed he and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz consulted with historians and veterans who determined “there were only a couple of transgender women in the Stonewall ever. They were like a minority.” Buzzfeed reports only one character in the film, real-life black trans leader Marsha P. Johnson (Otoja Abit), emerges as a discernible trans character.
Meanwhile, the star at the center of the controversy – Jeremy Irvine – says he’s sensitive to the issues surrounding the film, and just hopes the controversy only gets people talking about LGBT and diversity issues even more.
“No minority has been treated worse that the black transgender community so I totally understand that. But it’s nice for the movie to come out and say, ‘Look.’ This is a movie we’re all genuinely really proud of,” he told The Daily Beast, after writing on social media that he “deeply honors” the diverse Stonewall activists.
The British-born Irvine, 25, also says he’s aware this was a very personal project for Emmerich and writer Jon Robin Baitz: “I think that’s why my character’s in there. I think parts of them both are in my character. So it’s kind of like we’re seeing it through his eyes.”
And with the controversy in full swing, he’s learning to navigate his unofficial role as advocate for the film, the gay rights movement and more.
“I find it difficult to see it as my place,” he admitted. “I do get a little bit of stick from people who are like, ‘Who are you to say these things?’ You kind of have to agree with people on that. But at the same time I think everyone can stand up for equality.”
Stonewall opens in theaters Friday.