Sunday, 31 January 2016

Stonewall, and Stonewall by Roland Emmerich

To be honest I could barely get to the end of the trailer for Stonewall by Roland Emmerich. Instead, I’d encourage everyone to watch the Marsha P. Johnson documentary, ‘Pay It No Mind’, and Sylvia Rivera’s 1973 speech at Washington Square before you see Stonewall (or instead of). The Stonewall rebellion was so much by and about queer and gender non-conforming people of colour that to fictionalise a white male lead in a film about it seems like it can only possibly have been done at their expense. Why? Presumably to make the story more ‘palatable’ – and by palatable we mean suitable for Hollywood, and quite possibly the Oscars. Well, screw being palatable. Stonewall has been co-opted and whitewashed enough. Example: the Stonewall charity was founded in 1989 and only this year officially put trans rights on its agenda. Enough.

As a secondary point, it’s interesting (as a long-time Stonewall student) reading the think-pieces that have accompanied the kickback against the film. Various critics attempt to present as hard fact what cannot actually be proven about the Stonewall uprising, thus offering their own kind of historical re-write with a well-intentioned agenda. Sylvia Rivera moves to the forefront of the newest Stonewall narrative while the film itself apparently chooses to focus on Raymond Castro with a cameo possibly from a Marsha P. Johnson-esque character, while names like Marilyn Fowler, Jackie Hormona, Zazu Nova, Wolfgang Podoloski, Stormé Delarverie and Tammy Novak begin to fade away from the narrative – and as for the butch dyke (or possibly trans man) who was the first to escape arrest, she’s in the film, but people still wonder if she existed at all. This is the nature of Stonewall.

Most Stonewall historians have at some point had to disavow to some degree their principal sources of evidence. Everybody wants to have been there, thrown the first bottle or punch, and who wouldn’t? People fought hard, but not necessarily in the order we might think. I feel strongly in my heart that of all people, Marsha P. Johnson never spoke a dishonest word about anyone and that nobody had reason to speak one about her. Marsha was at Stonewall the first night (though if it was for her birthday she was celebrating early; she was born August not June), but how grieved might everyone be if it were more widely known that Marsha had described how, on the first night of fighting, she had frantically searched for her friend Sylvia Rivera, knowing that Sylvia would want to be involved, and had apparently found her asleep in Bryant Park, possibly homeless and perhaps using heroin. Sylvia couldn’t have thrown the first bottle from there, of course. Sylvia was with Marsha the second night of the fighting, with courage blazing, and subsequently devoted her life, her energy, her health to a movement for equality, or ‘power’ as she always called it, often living homeless and struggling with drink, always helping others, much the same as Marsha who would famously give you her last dollar – and it really would be her last. How are saints like this not fit for lead roles?

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