The Stonewall Movie: Why Representation Matters

New York, 1969. Police raid a gay bar in the early morning, resulting in members of the LGBT community pushing back and using violent acts to progress their civil rights in America. The event is now coined the “Stonewall Riots” and is quite possibly the most defining moment in LGBT history, in terms of demanding rights, much like the Selma to Montgomery Marches that helped define the African-American Civil Rights Movement.


Fast-forward to 2015: Filmmaker Ronald Emmerich (known for the 1996 movie Independence Day) releases a film based on the events of Stonewall, to educate and commemorate  the importance of such a historical event.


This should be a good thing right? A film so the people of today can learn about the hard work and advocacy shown by the people at Stonewall. It sounds like the sort of thing that should be highly regarded and embraced by the LGBT community. So why was it not only a box office bomb, but boycotted by the online community?


First let us take apart the film to understand what it is about. The Stonewall movie follows a fictional character named Danny Winters, a young, cisgender, white Indiana boy who flees his conservative hometown and moves to New York City. He there befriends many different people in the gay community, specifically at the Stonewall Inn gay bar. There they face abuse from police, resulting in the Stonewall riots where he and his friends are at the forefront of the movement.


Now let us look at the actual Stonewall riots. Unlike the depiction in the film, and although there are no first-hand accounts or videotapes that show exactly what happened, it is thought that a very large portion of the protestors and people to initiated the Stonewall riots were predominantly lead by drag-queens, transgender people, butch lesbians, bisexuals and also people of colour numerous kinds of people a Hollywood film would be opposed to show in the spotlight.


In particular, a trans woman (drag queen at the time), who was heavily involved in not only Stonewall, but various LGBT organizations and support, was Marsha P. Johnson.

So why is this film a problem?


It is unrepresentative. It focusses on false information and using a fictional character to drive an entire historical movement. For lack of a better comparison, imagine someone cast as a fictional white man depicting what Martin Luther King Jr. did in the new Selma film.


A big issue in film and television lately is the lack of proper representation. Many want to see Hollywood giving transgender roles, which this movie could have done, to transgender actors. Films of stories of transgender people who are played by cisgender actors are being released, leaving actual trans actors without jobs the business is hard enough as it is.


Representation gives a face and a voice to those who lack one publicly. For young people, minority groups usually end up being the majority of people who can’t turn on the TV and see someone like them. Whether that be culture or skin colour, to sexuality or gender. It gives kids and teenagers, and even adults, people they can look to and model themselves after. People want to see themselves reflected in what they watch. Every kid needs a hero.


That brings us to today. What happened to the Stonewall film? After its pre-release criticism and boycotting, it was also reviewed by numerous sources who say it was not only poorly representative of history, but just an overall bad movie. Horrible writing, editing, filmography, and just not worth the money to watch.

Worse moreover, the director defended his casting and story writing, telling Buzzfeed, “I didn’t make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people.” He then continues by saying, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting. He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him.” Obviously, his theory didn’t work to his advantage.


The movie “bombed,” grossing $112,414 from a 17 million budget, which came mostly from Emmerich’s own pocket, approximating a mere $871 income per each of the 127 theatres that showed the film.


Although this is a win in most terms, this also is not the best news for the LGBT community. In terms of the movie world, people will not look at this film’s lack of success entirely from the perspective that representation or historical accuracy are its downfall. Many people will see this lack of success as the result of it being a movie with LGBT themes, which haven’t done well in the past already. This inaccurate perception creates less incentive to make films with these themes, which definitely was not the outcome the creators of the film wanted.


In the end, however, there are more pros than cons from this result. The film should act as  a lesson for proper depiction and representation of minority groups and historical accuracy. People want accuracy and truth, not a blurred perception so non-minorities can “access” a story. Representation is important and positive results will continue to come from the fault Stonewall made.