Roland Emmerich’s new film ‘Stonewall’ stirred controversy when its trailer debuted, but will that distract from the real story?
lawrence ferber | Contributing Writer
Who threw the first brick at the Stonewall riots in 1969 — which launched the modern LGBT rights movement and subsequent annual gay Pride parades — has been a point of controversy and disagreement long before director Roland Emmerich decided to make a film of the material. Yet the openly gay Emmerich — best known for bombastic, special effects-laden Hollywood disaster popcorn blockbusters like Independence Day and Day After Tomorrow — is the first to warn that audiences shouldn’t regard this key moment in his new lightning-rod of a film Stonewall as a representation of historical fact.
“We said, let’s make a movie about Stonewall and try to be as entertaining and accurate about it as possible, but it’s a [narrative] movie, not a documentary,” he says. “When you look at a movie like Titanic, at the end, the Titanic goes down, but the rest is a love story between a rich girl and poor artist. Those characters were probably never on the Titanic, but that’s where it happened. Our story takes place [partly] in this club Stonewall and our main character, Danny, learns about what’s going on, to be gay in NYC, from these homeless kids, falls in love, and learns to survive.”
Written by out screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz, Stonewall follows Danny (Jeremy Irvine), a teen from the small town Midwest, who hightails it to Manhattan after his father gives him the boot for being gay. Once arrived on Christopher Street, the city’s gay crossroads, Danny falls in with a clique of rowdy homeless LGBTQ sex workers including Puerto Rican “scare queen” Ray/Ramona (Jonny Beauchamp), sassy African-American Cong (newcomer Vlad Alexis) and gender-bending hippie Orphan Annie (Caleb Landry Jones). The Stonewall Inn is their hub, and where Danny meets and falls for older Mattachine Society activist Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Myers), who despises Danny’s friends and their flamboyance. Add corrupt cops, homophobia and a Mafia-run prostitution ring, and it all combusts on a balmy June night during a police raid that started a movement.
Spoiler alert: Danny does in fact throw the first brick in the movie — he’s motivated to do so when a lesbian is carried away by police and urges the angry gay crowd to do something, which did actually happen in real life — but those who suspect the film is a “whitewashing” based upon the trailer (see sidebar, Page 82) will find that not to be the case at all.
Stonewall’s cast is diverse ethnically and in sexual/gender identities (including “scare queens,” feminine males who couldn’t afford proper drag get-ups yet wore eyeliner and whatever else they could cobble together) and Emmerich and his team decided to include many characters drawn directly from history including black drag activist Martha P. Johnson, played by Nigerian-American actor Otojo Abit. Ray/Ramona is a composite of Puerto Ricans Silvia Rivera (a drag queen and transgender activist) and Ray Castro; and Cong, portrayed by Alexis.
Despite the fact Danny throws the brick, a turning point in his character’s arc and an embracing of his sexuality and friendships. “It’s Cong’s brick,” notes Alexis. Openly gay, Alexis is a native of Montreal, where the film was shot — a detailed replica of 1960s-era Christopher Street and Stonewall Inn was constructed within a giant building.
Cong, who always carries a brick in a handbag for larcenous activities, is based on real-life Stonewall participant Congo Woman, chronicled in David Carter’s excellent non-fiction Stonewall tome. Alexis describes Congo Woman as “a nasty black drag queen that steals things, throws bricks and breaks windows just to survive.”
“I also took inspiration from so many other trans and queer kids out there,” Alexis elaborates. “The documentary Paris Is Burning, and Jason Holliday, who was a black artist back in the ’60s [and subject of the 1967 documentary Portrait of Jason]. For me, it’s not important who threw the first brick, because the fight was already happening [by the time it was thrown]. We don’t have to praise a specific person.”
The UK-born Irvine, who previously starred in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, admits that he was only peripherally aware of the Stonewall rebellion when he took on the role. Once cast, he immersed himself in research and drew personal inspiration and details from someone involved with the production. He won’t name the person, but says they shared their coming out letter with him. While Irvine declines to divulge whether he ever questioned his own sexuality, he freely admits that his mother is pleased that Rhys-Meyers plays his onscreen love interest. “My mom says you couldn’t choose someone better to have your first gay sex scene with.”
Unlike his film’s hayseed protagonist, Emmerich was born into a relatively wealthy German family, and his own coming out took place comparatively late. “I didn’t want to become a ‘gay director’ because in Germany when you were a gay director I couldn’t have done the movies I wanted to do,” he recalls. He arrived in the U.S. at age 33, fell in love with another man, and, eventually feeling much freer in his personal and professional life, considered making a gay-themed film.
It was during a tour of Los Angeles’ Gay & Lesbian Center that Emmerich learned that 40 percent of today’s homeless youth are LGBTQ. Upon digging into Stonewall’s history, and the critical role homeless youth played in the riot, he whipped up the film’s story outline.
Hollywood didn’t exactly embrace the idea of backing such a film, so Emmerich financed Stonewall independently with friends, and brought on Baitz as screenwriter. He also enlisted surviving Stonewall witnesses to speak with the film’s actors, and insisted that all extras taking part in the riot scene be LGBT-identified (when Emmerich learned that some straight extras were unhappy having to dance with other men during Stonewall Inn scenes, they were fired, Alexis shares).
“Montreal has a big gay population, and I insisted that everyone who is part of this riot has to be gay, and there was some real anger there,” Emmerich says. “For two or three days they were pumped. A couple of times we said ‘stop’ with a megaphone and it took a while to stop them.”
Apparently, some of the stars — including Irvine, Jones and Alexis — retained their characters’ more rowdy, sassy traits off-screen, especially while enjoying down-time in Montreal’s famed gay village.
“I told my friends before I started doing the project, I might not see you much this summer because I will be unbearable,” Alexis recalls, laughing. “Cong is such a strong character who has no fucks to give. Without naming names, we went to a gay strip joint and someone [from our group] threw a glass of water at the stripper dancing. It was sort of a Flashdance tribute. He didn’t receive it that well, and I needed to go speak to him in French and explain we are doing a movie and in our own heads! He understood and we shook hands after.”
Despite whatever controversies may (or may not) transpire once audiences see the film, Stonewall’s legacy has already imprinted itself on the filmmakers. The day after wrapping, Irvine visited New York’s actual Stonewall Inn — “it was like I was back on the film set but for real, we got horribly drunk and danced the night away!” — and an empowered Emmerich ensured there are LGBT characters in his upcoming Independence Day sequel (he declines to share details beyond “I have a couple of them”). Meanwhile, Alexis, who recently shot a cameo in Bryan Singer’s next X-Men film, admits he would have liked to keep a physical memoir of Stonewall — specifically, Cong’s brick.
“I wish I could have!” he laments. “But this was my first movie and you never know what you can take or not and I don’t want to be someone who steals from the set. That would be like taking Cong to another level. Some crazy method acting to steal from the set.”
Stonewall opens in Dallas on Sept. 25.
Trailer camp: 2 Stonewalls, 2 controversies
The Stonewall trailer received a standing ovation at the GLAAD Media Awards when it debuted in March, where director Roland Emmerich received the Stephen F. Kolzak Award for his work in promoting equality. So when it debuted to the public in early August, resulting in calls for a boycott of the film, Emmerich was completely surprised by this outraged reception.
“I was upset, I have to admit,” he says, “but one of our investors, who is very involved in marriage equality, is already happy because we have to bring attention to Stonewall because kids these days don’t know nothing. Already we made our goal — people are talking about who threw bricks, who was there and not.”
A 1995 film of the same name, directed by the late Nigel Finch and written by Rikki Beadle-Blair (he also co-wrote Patrik-Ian Polk’s recent Blackbird) based on Martin Duberman’s book, also stirred up controversy in its day, although mostly concerning its historical accuracy and emphasis on drag queens (Guillermo Diaz, who has since come out publicly, co-starred as a headstrong Latino drag queen La Miranda). Beadle-Blair declined to be interviewed for Stonewall-related articles, while Emmerich says of Finch’s 1995 film, “his was more like a musical. We have a totally different take and it was entertaining, but I wanted to tell another story.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 18, 2015.