Stonewall Didn’t Need a White Male Lead. So Why Does It Have One?

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by Roadside Attractions

It’s as bad as you feared. Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall makes good on the historical erasure promised in its trailer, turning a pivotal moment in queer history into a vanity project. Stonewall, the three-day uprising against the police that birthed the modern queer-rights movement, also made the names of two trans activists of color: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who eventually founded STAR — Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (later renamed Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries), an advocacy organization for homeless LGBT youth. They are two exceedingly important historical figures, and the types of compelling characters around whom movies should be made.

Stonewall doesn’t simply erase them from the record — Rivera becomes a lovelorn “composite” character named Ray, and Johnson, who many witnesses say started the riots, isn’t present when they begin — but instead replaces them with a fabricated fictional lead: Danny Winters, a gay white boy from Indiana who serves as our entrée into the wild world of Christopher Street. In Stonewall, people of color, street queens, hustlers, and lesbians become peripheral, undesirable, and, at times, delusional — an amusing footnote in the great arc of gay liberation — while Danny, the interloper, throws the first brick that starts the riots, yelling, “Gay power!” In this way, Danny misrepresents queer history, while also acting as yet another instance of a narrative relying on an audience surrogate: the white guy who can properly tell the story of “the other.”

This was always the intention. In the press notes for the film, producer Michael Fossat said, “The biggest challenge in casting this film was the character of Danny because he’s in every scene and the film is really about him.” They settled on Jeremy Irvine, a 25-year-old, blue-eyed British actor with a shaky grip on the American accent. “Danny is a very straight-acting kid,” Emmerich said. “[The audience] can relate more strongly to him and through Danny’s eyes they’ll experience the more extreme situations depicted in the film.” Who is the audience? “I didn’t make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people.” he told BuzzFeed. “As a director you have to put yourself in your movies, and I’m white and gay.”

For Emmerich, the only way to make a film about the queer underclass — or, as he unironically calls them, the “unsung heroes” — was through a white surrogate, a character who looks like something Emmerich thinks is his ideal audience member. It’s similar to what Kyle Buchanan noted as the current trend in queer and trans films, like The Danish Girl, Freeheld, and About Ray, whose narratives hinge on the humanization of straight people. There’s a dismal flatness to this logic, as though viewers can’t be asked to relate to anything more than something outside of a narrow identity. By orienting itself toward a straight white audience, Stonewall elides the deeper roots of rage that fueled the riots. Emmerich tries to have it both ways: He wants to be on the right side of history — to absorb the radical politics of trans activists like Rivera and Johnson — while shoehorning their stories into a market-tested white boy. Stonewall is historical slash-fiction for the gay white man.

Unfortunately, the white surrogate is a well-worn narrative device. Mississippi Burning, the 1988 movie about the FBI investigation into the murder of three civil-rights workers in the South, performed a similar historical erasure. In that film, the FBI, the agency that had actively ignored the plight of civil-rights activists in the South, becomes the vigilante hero. “Even the little details in the film … relegate blacks to the background of the drama of which they were the real-life heroes,” Jack E. White wrote for Time. “One gets no sense of their courageous struggle against violent white supremacy and second-class citizenship.” Instead, he called the film a “cinematic lynching of the truth.”

The modern-day white surrogate is still here to hold our hands. He’s there in Netflix’s show Narcos, about the life and times of Colombia’s drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar. While the show is about Escobar (the actor who plays him, Wagner Moura, gets first billing), it’s told from the perspective of the white DEA agent Steve Murphy (played by Boyd Holbrook). He’s the gringo who doesn’t speak Spanish, and it’s his voice-over that frames each episode — even though he has a Spanish-speaking partner, Javier Peña, played by Pedro Pascal, who would have been perfectly capable of doing the same thing.

The white surrogate was also the framing device for Orange Is the New Black, originally based on the book by Piper Kerman about her own experiences in prison. In an interview for the first season, Orange creator Jenji Kohan told NPR that she saw Piper as a kind of “Trojan horse” — a way to tell stories of people of color by using a white woman. Kohan, though, is much savvier about the narrative device than Emmerich is.

“You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals,” she said. “It’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.” What’s unfortunate, of course, is that she knew she had to do that to begin with. At least during the second season of Orange Piper receded into the background, suggesting that while she may have started the narrative, she didn’t have to define it. Stonewall makes no such concessions.

There’s a scene in the movie that unintentionally captures its own deceit. Danny tells his street-queen friend Ray (Jonny Beauchamp) that he’s going to quit hustling on the streets and move in with a wealthy gay white man named Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). “So tricking was just a little adventure in your story?” Ray yells. Yes, that’s exactly right. The street life was always a kind of drag for Danny, who, actually, would be attending Columbia in the fall. He hustles just long enough to work through his identity and start the movement before going off to live the good life in Morningside Heights. It ends on a falsely contemporary note, as though it were a PSA for the It Gets Better campaign. Danny reunites with the street queens a year later for the first gay-pride march, and they are practically giving one another air kisses.

And yet for many of the people instrumental to the queer-liberation movement, things did not simply get better. The life of Marsha P. Johnson — Stonewall instigator, co-founder of STAR, and participant in ACT UP, a radical advocacy organization for people with AIDS — always teetered on the precipice. Her body was found in the Hudson during the pride celebrations of 1992, only for the police to callously dismiss her death as a suicide. The historical record only contains fragments of the lives of poor people and queer people of color; since their lives are precarious, so, too, are their memories. And yet isn’t this the beauty of narrative? That it allows us to access worlds beyond our reckoning and uncover hard-to-see truths? In this way, Stonewall is a deeply cynical film, because it suggests we’re so lacking in empathy that we can’t experience the joy, sadness, and longing of another person simply because they don’t “look” like a movie star. What condescension. What a total failure of the imagination.

Stonewall: Yet Another ‘White Surrogate’ Project