The web has been full of comment in the last week or ten days about the trailer for the new movie from Roland Emmerich called Stonewall. People are pointing out that the principal character of the new movie is a young white dude—maybe even a straight one—instead of a young trans woman who is a person of color and who is very definitely queer. And apparently Emmerich says this dude started the Stonewall Riots. Our Stonewall Riots. Many gay people are pissed and signing petitions and proposing a boycott. There’s something wrong with all this.
The link takes you to an article published today on Huffington Post/gay voices/ by Colin Walmsley, which gives you an idea of the complaints being made about Emmerich. For example, Walmsley says Emmerich didn’t respect the contributions to the riots of the trans community or the Hispanic community or the persons of color in the LGBT community. He also says that the “large woman” whose fight against the cops before the riots began was actually the struggle that started the riots, and the woman has never been identified before. Walmsley identifies her as Storm DeLarverie. David Carter says DeLarverie “could not have been” the large woman who started the riots (footnote on p. 309, n. 10), and he says we still don’t know who the large woman was. Walmsley says that “While assimilation-oriented gays pleaded with the queer community for peace in Greenwich Village, enraged queers used parking meters as battering rams to break down the door of the Stonewall Inn and reclaim their safe space from the mob and the police,” which sets up a conflict between “assimilation-oriented gays” and “enraged queers.” This may have been an accurate description before the riots began, but it was definitely not true by the time the parking meter was rammed into the Stonewall door. Everybody on the street was cheering the guys on. Walmsley’s reference to “parking meters” is contradicted by all the people who have said there was only one. There was only a small group of men—four—who wrestled it out of the ground. The point here is that Walmsley is attacking Emmerich for not getting his facts straight, and then we discover Walmsley doesn’t have his facts straight.
Martin Bauml Duberman’s book Stonewall (1993) and David Carter’s book, Stonewall: The riots that sparked the gay revolution (2004) are the two major sources of information on the Stonewall Riots. These books have been out for a long time, and subject to public scrutiny. Emmerich’s movie is based on Carter’s book, yet Carter’s book has not been criticized the way Emmerich’s movie is being criticized.
It may be that we’re not asking the right question. The Stonewall Riots are an historial event, and Duberman and Carter have written history, and what Roland Emmerich has made is a work of art. Stonewall may be a good movie or a bad one or a sloppy one or, knowing Emmerich, a big, loud one, but movies operate by a different set of rules than history does. The books by Duberman and Carter seek to determine the truth about the past. Art—in this case Roland Emmerich’s movie Stonewall—seeks to entertain or to enlighten or to amaze or delight, but it does not seek to inform about an historical truth. If that happens, it is a ancillary benefit to the main purpose. If we want to know exactly what happened at the Stonewall Riots, we should read Duberman or Carter or their successors in the future, but we need not go to movie houses. A director has license to do things that a historian is not licensed to do, like make a movie of things that are not true. He can put two young people, who are just falling in love, on the Titanic, where, as a matter of fact, we know the names of every single passenger, and have them fall in love, and then have one of them drown. We know none of it is true. That’s often what art does, it tells things that are not true, and we like it that way. By telling us that Hamlet spoke to a ghost, Shakespeare lied, and, by lying, he created a tragedy that playgoers have been going to for four hundred years. We know it’s fiction, and we know a writer doesn’t have to tell the historical truth in fiction.
It’s a mistake to complain about Emmerich’s movie not telling the truth about Stonewall. Movies like this don’t generally tell the truth, even when they say, based on David Carter’s book. It is not that movies don’t tell the truth so much as it is that they don’t have anything to do with a historical truth.
This is important because, in 46 years, no one has made a big-budget film of the Stonewall Riots. Now that Emmerich is making one, it is important that the LGBT communities tread very carefully the line between, on the one hand, letting him know we are watching him and that we are going to call him to account when he’s finished if the changes he’s made in the historical record are not made for legitimate reasons, and, on the other, celebrating the movie that he is making. We should encourage him to use his talents to make movies out of events in our history. It is not enough for us to merely throw rocks at him as the men and women who went before us threw rocks at the cops. We should remember, Emmerich is not the enemy.
We should remember other things, too: We’re a great movement. We are a great community. We have our heroes and our villains. Our history is long and almost completely unexplored. Even as comprehensive as David Carter’s book is, the Stonewall Riots remain largely unexplored. How did such a small urban disturbance become the seminal event in the world of queers on Earth? As much as we have changed our place in the political landscape of America, there is still more to be explored. More to know. And have courage. Even if Emmerich’s movie disappoints us, as it probably will, we should know that, since we are what we are, and who we are, there will be other movies after Emmerich’s. Even if no single movie—or history—captures completely the rich sense of what it has been like for gay people in all our kinds, still we can know that the project is not completed. There will be others.