I can see why Stonewall, by Roland Emmerich, has been widely and thoroughly savaged, even to the point of a call for a boycott.

The movie has been attacked for having a white, straight-acting actor who plays Dannie from Indiana. Dannie is widely described as being “corn fed,” when he should have been an Hispanic flame queen. See here.

Emmerich’s worst error is when Danny takes a brick from his friend Ray, who is Hispanic, and hears Trevor, the guy from Mattachine, say, “Wait, that’s not the way it’s done.” Danny answers, “This is the only way it’s done,” and throws the brick through a window of the Stonewall. The biggest, most thoroughly researched history of the riots says that there were many objects thrown by many people.* Having Danny throw the brick gives a leadership role to Danny that is a wrong in a story about riots that traditionally have been known to be leaderless. Our community rose up, all together, and there was no one person who led us.

I think people are attacking this movie for the wrong things. Stonewall is a big story, and people are going to be looking at it and reading books about it and seeing movies based on it for a long time. If the history of George Washington crossing the Delaware and his winter at Valley Forge, and if the debates in Philadelphia in Independence Hall are examples, what we’re facing is the gradual transformation of the riots at the Stonewall into the kind of mythic event that underlay the Broadway musical 1776, or the movies Lincoln or Selma or Mississippi Burning. 

A moviegoer particularly interested in the riots can see any movie about them as a celebration of the riots, but he or she should also see them as a tentative essay into getting the riots right. It is as if the moviegoer is a playgoer at the theatre settling in to watch another Henry V after having seen it a half-a-dozen times during his life. Each version of Henry V uses the same text—the same words, the same facts—but that text will be reinterpreted over and over again, in sometimes surprising ways and in sometimes deeply moving ways, and what they all do is make a contribution to our understanding, not of the play itself so much as to our understanding of the effect of the play on us and our culture. The difference between Laurence Olivier’s Henry V during World War II and Laurence Harvey’s Henry V in 1958 is dependent in a major way on the extent to which the playgoer feels himself or herself threatened by war.

This movie by Emmerich will not be the last movie about the riots. There will be others that stay closer to the facts as we know them and encompass more expansively the world in which the riots take place, and will better reflect their audiences and their times. Other movies will have better actors and better screenplays, and perhaps more money to spend. They will be located on Christopher park on Christopher Street instead of somewhere in Canada. But this movie is valuable because it is the first movie about the riots. All others will be measured against it, even if all others are found to be better. It is one attempt, and it is the first attempt.

I think people ought to see this movie (I’ve seen it twice), if only just to see what a movie about the riots can be like—what are the issues, what are the problems, what does it mean to us—and what we’re going to want in the next movie about the riots. It has made us think about the riots and what they mean. While a boycott merely judges and rejects, seeing the movie for ourselves helps us better understand why the riots are important. Getting better is the goal.

*David Carter, Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St Martin’s Press, 2004