It was supposed to be a love letter from a blockbuster filmmaker to a community he had overlooked for too long, focusing instead on big-budget disaster films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. But openly gay director Roland Emmerich is now finding that his small-scale passion project, Stonewall, is turning into a bit of a disaster itself.
The historical drama recounts the events surrounding the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a bloody standoff with police outside a Greenwich Village gay bar that is widely credited with kicking off the modern gay-rights movement.
“I want to do a little movie, about $12 to $14 million,” the Germany-born Emmerich said of the project back in 2013. “It’s about these crazy kids in New York, and a country bumpkin who gets into their gang, and at the end they start this riot and change the world.”
It’s that “country bumpkin” character, however, that has become the source of much grousing about the film, almost all of which has come from within the LBGT community to which it is presumably geared.
The trouble began just minutes after a trailer hit the web on Tuesday, introducing audiences to the film’s fictional protagonist: a handsome, white Midwesterner named Danny Winters (English actor Jeremy Irvine, star of Steven Spielberg‘s War Horse) who heads to Manhattan after being expelled from his parents’ home over his sexuality.
Though the Stonewall Riot was a multicultural protest, credit for its incitement has long fallen to transgender minorities — figures like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a Stonewall Inn patron who refused to submit to demands that she produce identification for an undercover police raid. (Griffin-Gracy was beaten by police and carted off to central booking, resulting in a broken jaw.)
Then there was Storme DeLarverie, also known as “the Gay Community’s Rosa Parks,” an African-American lesbian who was the first of the protesters to punch a cop. And Sylvia Rivera, a then-17-year-old Puerto Rican drag queen who was simply “tired of being just pushed around.”
While the 59-year-old Emmerich’s crowd scenes are racially diverse, the bulk of the trailer’s footage lingers on his white star’s comely features. Never mind that it begins with a lengthy audio clip from Barack Obama‘s second inaugural address, in which the president lists Stonewall alongside Seneca Falls and Selma as a great moment for American civil rights. The trailer does not sit well with LGBT activists, particularly in 2015 — a banner-year for transgender rights and racial identity.
A boycott of the film has sprung up online, and is well on its way toward amassing its goal of 15,000 signatures. “To all considering watching the newest whitewashed version of queer history, it is time that black and brown transwomyn and drag queens are recognized for their efforts in the riots throughout the nation,” the petition reads.
To quell the growing backlash, Emmerich issued a statement on his Facebook page: “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.”
He continues: “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.”
Stonewall is the second film to tell the story of the riots. The first, a 1995 film of the same name, is told from the point of view of a Latina drag queen named La Miranda (Scandal‘s Guillermo Diaz) — though it too prominently features a hunky white activist (played by Frederick Weller).
Distributed by Village Roadwshow, Emmerich’s version, written by Jon Rabin Baitz, arrives in theaters Sept. 25.