When Entertainment and Accuracy Clash: The Stonewall Movie Controversy

Stonewall, a movie about the 1969 Stonewall riots, is debuting in U.S. theaters on Friday, September 25th, 2015. But will there be audiences to watch it? A recent controversy involving the movie’s casting choices had LBGT communities in an uproar, many prepared to boycott the premiere.

The Stonewall riots occurred in June of 1969 in Manhattan, New York City, at the Stonewall Inn. The Inn was owned at that time by the Mafia, and catered to a marginalized community of transgender men and women, drag queens, gay prostitutes, and homeless youths. The U.S. legal system in the 1960s was homophobic, and police raids on LGBT gatherings were common. However, the raid that occurred that night at the Stonewall Inn incited violent rioting from the liberal Greenwich Village area. Spectators, many of whom were homosexual, began fighting the police after watching the rough treatment of the Inns patrons. This event was a defining catalyst for the gay liberation movement and the fight for LGBT rights, calling attention to the prejudiced treatment of their constituents. Stonewall, the movie, is based around this historical event, however, the modern LGBT community is unsatisfied with what the movie trailer promises.

The controversy surrounds casting choices. Director Roland Emmerich cast actor Jeremy Irvine to play the lead, a white, blond-haired boy named Danny who moved from the Midwest to New York City, having left his hometown after being ostracized for being gay. Danny eventually becomes a pivotal figure in the movie depiction of the Stonewall riots. Emmerich and the screenwriter, Jon Robin Baitz, are both gay white men, while Irvine is a British, white cis man. The LGBT community has found issue with the whitewashed and male perspective of the film, especially since some of the biggest players in the Stonewall riots, like Martha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Ray Castro, and Johnson were neither white nor male. Some witnesses to the riots, such as Mark Segal, have spoken out about their dissatisfaction with the low diversity of the films cast and Pat Cordova-Goff’s petition to boycott the film has gained nearly 25,000 signatures.

Director Emmerich has defended his casting decisions by claiming Danny is relatable to a wider audience. He wanted to create a “fictionalized drama” about the riots:

This controversy brings into question the expectations general audiences have for modern day mainstream motion pictures. Emmerich made Stonewall on a budget of $17 million. While he may wish to inform on the history of LGBT communities, he must also successfully entertain, connect with the general audiences, and exceed the money spent on production. It appears to be the cost of making a mainstream film nowadays.

Perhaps future movie-makers will be able to afford sacrificing entertainment and high box-office ratings in favor of historical accuracy.

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