By Lawrence Ferber
The question of who threw the first brick during the 1969 Stonewall riots, thereby launching the modern LGBT civil-rights movement and annual Pride parades, has been a point of controversy and disagreement long before director Roland Emmerich’s new film depicting that pivotal moment. In fact, Emmerich (who is best known for bombastic, special effects-laden Hollywood disaster blockbusters like Independence Day and Day After Tomorrow) is the first to warn that audiences shouldn’t regard this key scene in his film as a representation of historical fact.
“We said, ‘Let’s make a movie about Stonewall and try to be as entertaining and accurate about it as possible.’ But it’s a [narrative] movie, not a documentary,” he explains. “When you look at a [narrative] movie like Titanic, at the end the Titanic goes down, but the rest [of the film] is a love story between a rich girl and a poor artist. Those characters were probably never on the Titanic, but that’s where it happened. Our story takes place [in 1969 around the Stonewall Inn], and our main character, Danny, learns about being gay in New York City from these homeless kids, falls in love, and learns to survive.”
Written by out screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz, Stonewall follows the journey of Danny (Jeremy Irvine), a teen from a small town in the Midwest who hightails it to Manhattan after his father gives him the boot for being gay. Upon his arrival at the city’s gay mecca, Christopher Street, Danny falls in with a clique of rowdy, homeless LGBTQ sex workers, including Puerto Rican “scare queen” Ray/Ramona (Jonny Beauchamp), sassy African-Canadian Cong (Vlad Alexis), and gender-bending hippie Orphan Annie (Caleb Landry Jones). Stonewall Inn is their hub, and that’s where Danny meets and falls for older Mattachine Society activist Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Myers), who despises Danny’s flamboyant friends. Add corrupt cops, homophobia, and a mafia-run prostitution ring, and it all combusts on a balmy June night during a routine police raid on the Stonewall. Spoiler Alert: Danny throws the first brick in the movie, after seeing a lesbian being carried away by police while urging the angry gay crowd to do something—which did actually happen in real life. However, those who suspect the film is a “whitewashing” based only on seeing the trailer (see sidebar below) will find that not to be the case at all.
Stonewall’s cast is diverse, both ethnically and in sexual/gender identities—including “scare queens,” feminine males who can’t afford proper drag get-ups yet wear eyeliner and whatever else they can cobble together. Emmerich and his team decided to include quite a few characters drawn directly from history: black drag queen/activist Martha P. Johnson (played by Nigerian-American actor Otojo Abit); Ray/Ramona, a composite of Puerto Rican transgender activist Silvia Rivera and her fellow Puerto Rican Ray Castro; and Cong (played by Alexis).
Despite the fact that Danny throws the first brick in the movie (a turning point in his character’s arc as he embraces his sexuality and friendships), “it’s Cong’s brick,” notes Alexis. Openly gay, Alexis is a native of Montreal, where the film was shot in a giant building where a detailed replica of 1960s-era Christopher Street and Stonewall Inn were constructed.
Cong, who always carries a brick in a handbag for larcenous activities, is based on real-life Stonewall participant Congo Woman, chronicled in David Carter’s excellent nonfiction Stonewall tome. Alexis describes Congo Woman as “a nasty black drag queen who steals things, throws bricks, and breaks windows just to survive.”
Alexis elaborates, “I also took inspiration from so many other trans and queer kids out there—the documentary Paris Is Burning, and Jason Holliday, who was a black artist back in the ’60s [and subject of the 1967 documentary Portrait of Jason]. For me, it’s not important who threw the first brick, because the fight was already happening [by the time it was thrown]. We don’t have to praise a specific person.”
The UK-born Irvine, who previously starred in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, admits that he was only peripherally aware of the Stonewall rebellion when he took on the role. Once cast, he immersed himself in research and drew personal inspiration and details from someone involved with the production who shared a coming-out letter with him. While Irvine declines to divulge that person’s name (or whether he ever questioned his own sexuality), Irvine freely admits that his mother is pleased that Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays his on-screen love interest. “My mom says you couldn’t choose anyone better to have your first gay sex scene with.”
Unlike his film’s hayseed protagonist, Emmerich was born into a relatively wealthy German family, and his own coming-out took place comparatively late. “I didn’t want to become a ‘gay director,’ because in Germany a gay director couldn’t have done the movies I wanted to do,” he recalls. He arrived in the U.S. at age 33, fell in love with another man, and eventually felt free enough in his personal and professional life to consider making a gay-themed film.
It was during a tour of Los Angeles’ Gay & Lesbian Center that Emmerich learned that 40 percent of today’s homeless youth are LGBTQ. Upon digging into Stonewall’s history, and the critical role homeless youth played in the riot, he whipped up the film’s story outline.
Hollywood didn’t exactly embrace the idea of backing such a film, so Emmerich financed Stonewall independently with friends, and brought on Baitz as screenwriter. He also enlisted surviving Stonewall witnesses to speak with the film’s actors, and insisted that all extras taking part in the riot scene be LGBT-identified. (Alexis shares that when Emmerich learned that some straight extras were unhappy about having to dance with other men during Stonewall Inn scenes, they were fired). “Montreal has a big gay population, and I insisted that everyone who is part of this riot has to be gay. There was some real anger [while we filmed the riot scenes],” Emmerich says. “For two or three days they were pumped. A couple of times we said ‘stop’ with a megaphone, and it took a while to stop them.”
Apparently, some of the stars, including Irvine, Jones, and Alexis, retained their characters’ more rowdy, sassy traits off-screen, especially while enjoying downtime in Montreal’s famed gay village. “I told my friends before I started doing the project, ‘I might not see you much this summer because I will be unbearable,’” Alexis recalls, laughing. “Cong is such a strong character who has no f–ks to give. Without naming names, we went to a gay strip joint and someone [from our group] threw a glass of water at the stripper dancing. It was sort of a Flashdance tribute. The stripper didn’t receive it that well, and I needed to go speak to him in French and explain we are doing a movie and in our [characters’] heads! He understood, and we shook hands after.”
Despite any factual controversies resulting from the movie, Stonewall’s legacy managed to imprint itself on the filmmakers. The day after wrapping, Irvine visited New York’s real Stonewall Inn. “It was like I was back on the film set, but for real; we got horribly drunk and danced the night away!” An empowered Emmerich has since managed to ensure that there are LGBT characters in his upcoming Independence Day sequel (he declines to share details beyond “I have a couple of them”). Meanwhile, Alexis, who recently shot a cameo in Bryan Singer’s next X-Men film, admits he would have liked to keep a physical memoir from the Stonewall set—specifically, Cong’s brick.
“I wish I could have!” he laments. “But this was my first movie, and you never know what you can take or not, and I don’t want to be someone who steals from the set. That would be like taking Cong to another level. Some crazy method-acting, to steal from the set.”
Freelance contributor Lawrence Ferber is co-writer of the award-winning 2010 gay rom-com Bear City and author of its 2013 novelization.
Two Stonewalls, two controversies.
The Stonewall trailer received a standing ovation at the GLAAD Media Awards in March, where director Roland Emmerich received the Stephen F. Kolzak Award for his work in promoting equality. So when the film had its public debut in early August, resulting in calls for a boycott of the trailer, Emmerich was completely surprised by the completely different, outraged reception.
“I was upset, I have to admit,” he shares, “but one of our investors, who is very involved in marriage equality, is happy because we said you have to bring attention to Stonewall because kids these days don’t know anything. Already we’ve made our goal—people are talking about who threw bricks, who was there, and who was not.”
The 1995 film Stonewall, directed by the late Nigel Finch and based on Martin Duberman’s book with a screenplay by black gay British multi-hyphenate Rikki Beadle-Blair (who also co-wrote Patrik-Ian Polk’s recent Blackbird), also stirred up some controversy in its day, although mostly concerning its historical accuracy and emphasis on drag queens. (Guillermo Diaz, who has since come out publicly, co-starred as a headstrong Latino drag queen, La Miranda.)
Beadle-Blair politely declined to be interviewed for the current Stonewall-related articles, while Emmerich says of Finch’s 1995 film, “His was more like a musical. We have a totally different take. [His] was entertaining, but I wanted to tell another story.” —Lawrence Ferber