The Big Question Behind 'Stonewall' Backlash: Who Threw The First Brick?

Sep 24, 2015
Originally published on October 14, 2015 3:05 pm

They're remembered as the sparks for the modern gay-rights movement, but after almost half a century, it's hard to say exactly what happened during the 1969 Stonewall riots. And now Stonewall, a new film interpretation of this history, is fielding backlash even before its Friday opening.

Stonewall follows a fictional rioter, Danny, played by Jeremy Irvine. He's a white high school student from Indiana who runs away to New York City after his friends find out that he's gay and his father kicks him out of the house.

Once he gets to Greenwich Village, Danny is taken in by a crew of homeless youth, many of them gender-nonconforming and of color. He also meets real-life activist Marsha P. Johnson, a black transgender woman portrayed by Otoja Abit. Danny's new friends show him how to survive on the streets, and eventually — after a love triangle and tangles with the mob — they're all front and center when the riots erupt outside a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn.

The movie depicts the riots that actually took place after police raided the Stonewall in the summer of 1969. At the time, New York bars that openly served alcohol to gay customers were often denied liquor licenses and frequently raided. But no one knows for sure why so many bar patrons and onlookers fought back after the June 28 raid, which led to almost a week of rioting. Many of the participants had endured years of raids and beatings before they flung loose change and glass bottles at police outside the burning Stonewall Inn.

The film's director, Roland Emmerich, says, "We kind of did this movie mainly to unify and to educate young gays. ... It was not like one group who led this riot — it was everybody."

Emmerich, who is also known for disaster movies like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, says he wanted a white, male protagonist to serve as a relatable surrogate for the audience. That character, Danny, also throws the brick that starts the riots after he catches his boyfriend cheating on him in the bar. "We knew this didn't happen," Emmerich explains. "This is a fictional story and I think it made ... sense for this story."

But it did not make sense for Pat Cordova-Goff, an organizer for transgender youth at the Gay-Straight Alliance Network. After Cordova-Goff saw the trailer, which features the brick-throwing scene, she started an online petition calling for a boycott of the movie, which, she says, "whitewashes" the history of the riots. So far, she's collected more than 24,000 signatures.

"Whoever is portrayed to throw the first brick will affect someone's perception of the entire movement," Cordova-Goff says. "You know, it's a statement saying who are we going to, you know, respect and who are we going to portray as the power minds behind this movement?"

Tim Stewart-Winter, who studies the history of gay movements at Rutgers University, says it's actually unclear who started the Stonewall riots. "We don't know who threw the first brick just because no one knew at the time that this would be an event of world historical importance," he explains. "It was late at night; it was a murky situation."

Still, he says criticism of the new film's interpretation is rooted in divisions within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

"White, middle-class people have been the face of gay visibility in Hollywood, in politics for so long that I think people rightly look to Stonewall and say, 'This is something that was not a project of middle-class, white activists,' " he says.

A broad coalition of LGBT activists ultimately formed the gay liberation movement that emerged from Stonewall. But Stewart-Winter adds that perhaps the most important driving force against the police during the riots were young street kids and older, self-described drag queens like Stonewall veteran Martin Boyce, who served as a consultant for the new film. Boyce says that despite the criticism, he's proud to be a part of the film and the legacy of Stonewall.

"That Stonewall came out of these queens whose lives would have been just bulldozed by history, you know, all of sudden made a difference," Boyce says. "Many of them died thinking they did nothing in their lives. But look at what they did do."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Almost 50 years ago, police stormed a gay bar in New York City called the Stonewall Inn. The clash between police and patrons helped spark today's modern Gay Rights Movement. Now those riots are the subject of a controversial new movie that opens tomorrow. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: At Stonewall, the drinks were watered down and the bar often raided in 1969, like in this scene from the new movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STONEWALL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As policeman) Get in a line up against the walls.

JONNY BEAUCHAMP: (As Ray) I know y'all pigs get paid off every time you raid this place. I probably paid for all your kids' Christmas presents.

JEREMY IRVINE: (As Danny) Oh, Jesus Christ.

WANG: No one knows why so many bar patrons and onlookers fought back the first night of the riots. Many had lived through years of raids and beatings on the street before they flung loose change and glass bottles at police outside the burning Stonewall Inn.

The new movie follows a fictional rioter named Danny. The white high school student from Indiana runs away to New York City after his friends find out that he's gay and his father kicks him out of the house.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STONEWALL")

BEAUCHAMP: (As Ray) Yo everybody, this is Danny. Danny, welcome to New York.

WANG: Danny is taken in by a crew of homeless youth. Many of them are transgender people of color. They show him how to survive in the streets of New York, and eventually, after a love triangle entangles with the mob, they're all front and center in the riots outside Stonewall.

Roland Emmerich, the filmmaker behind "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow" directed the movie.

ROLAND EMMERICH: We, like, kind of did this movie mainly to unify and to educate young gays, in general, that there was a event where it was not, like, one group who led this riot - it was, like, everybody.

WANG: But Emmerich says he wanted a white male protagonist to serve as a relatable surrogate for the audience. That character, Danny, also throws the brick that starts the Stonewall riots.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STONEWALL")

JONATHAN RHYS MEYERS: (As Trevor) That's not the way, Danny.

IRVINE: (As Danny) It's the only way.

EMMERICH: We knew this didn't happen. This is a fictional story. And I think it made very much sense for this story, for me.

WANG: But not for Pat Cordova-Goff, an organizer for transgender youth with the Gay-Straight Alliance Network. After she saw the trailer last month, Cordova-Goff started an online petition calling for the boycott of the new "Stonewall" movie, which she says whitewashes the history of the riots. So far, she's collected more than 24,000 signatures.

PAT CORDOVA-GOFF: Whoever is portrayed to throw the first brick will affect someone's perception of the entire movement, you know? It's a statement saying, who are we going to, you know, respect and who are we going to portray as the power minds behind this movement?

WANG: Tim Stewart-Winter, who studies the history of gay movements at Rutgers University, says no one know who started the Stonewall riots. Still, he says, criticism of the new film's interpretation is rooted in divisions within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

TIM STEWART-WINTER: White, middle-class people have been the face of gay visibility in Hollywood, in politics for so long that I think people rightly look to Stonewall and say, this is something that was not a project of middle-class, white activists.

WANG: Stewart-Winter says a broad coalition of LGBT activists ultimately formed the Gay Liberation Movement that emerged from Stonewall. But he adds that perhaps the most important driving force against the police were young street kids and older, self-described drag queens, like Stonewall veteran Martin Boyce. Boyce served as a consultant for the new movie. And despite the criticism, he says he's proud to be a part of it and the legacy of Stonewall.

MARTIN BOYCE: That Stonewall came out of these queens whose lives would have been just bulldozed by history, you know, all of the sudden made a difference. Many of them died thinking they did nothing in their lives, but look what they did do.

WANG: Something we're still talking about almost half a century later. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.