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FILM ANALYSIS Rewatching Stonewall at the movies
by Matt Simonette

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Early in gay director Nigel Finch's 1995 sort-of docudrama Stonewall, the drag queen La Miranda ( Guillermo Diaz ), who's one of the central characters, looks at the audience and says: "There's as many Stonewall stories as there's queens in New York. ... This is my Stonewall legend."

Finch, who died from AIDS complications shortly before Stonewall's release, turned the film into a pastiche of sorts. The film opens with authentic documentary footage from the uprising, and punctuates key moments with drag queens like La Miranda lip-syncing musical numbers that provide a Greek chorus-like commentary on the action.

While solidly constructed, Finch's film highlights a number of shortcomings with filmed historical drama, specifically those around how filmmakers can maintain accuracy while formulating a story that can still engage an audience. The 1995 film and a subsequent Stonewall film released two decades later illustrate how easy it is for filmed dramas to leave the participants with the highest real-life stakes behind.

Stonewall's audience surrogate is Matty Dean ( Frederick Weller ), a new arrival to New York who is introduced both to the denizens of the Stonewall Inn as well as other gay New Yorkers, among them members of the Homophile movement, whose meetings Dean attends.

Despite his being a fresh face in the neighborhood, both the Stonewall drag queens and the straight-laced homophile activists need Dean there to give them lessons in authenticity. La Miranda, who falls for Dean and suffers from residual trauma from the castigation she's grown up with, needs him to don her drag so that he can more ably argue for an exemption from the draft. Similarly, Dean has to explain to Homophile activist Ethan ( Brendan Corbalis ) that his vanilla affect is just as much a constructed persona as a drag queen like La Miranda's.

While Finch acknowledges the role of drag queens in the uprising, it's Dean who is needed to largely inspire a call for liberation among them in the film. To be clear on the film, the drag queen Bostonia ( Duane Boutte ) throws the first punch in the raid that seemingly triggered the uprising. But the Greenwich Villagers, it seemed, would have not been so impatient had Dean showed.

The film was an adaptation of sorts Martin Duberman's documentary book Stonewall, and had the unenviable challenge of whittling down numerous storylines into a three-act screenplay. Among those interviewees Duberman consulted was activist Sylvia Rivera—whose role in the uprising has only in recent years largely been acknowledged. Indeed, Rivera's visit to the draft board in the book is the scene Finch seemingly riffs on, using Dean. The late Chicago activist William B. Kelley was among those who read Duberman's initial drafts.

The film Stonewall had relatively minor impact when it was released in the summer of 1995. The filmmakers had solid credentials when it came to LGBT cinema—Finch had directed Paris Is Burning, for example, and lesbian producer Christine Vachon has made multiple prestigious films before and since, most notably in partnership with gay director Todd Haynes. But contemporary viewers now might come away from the film feeling that the queer characters are short-changed. Matty Dean seems to be learning the ropes even as he educates those around him—those who have lived in New York City for years longer—how to be authentic.

If audiences were ambivalent about such whitewashing of history in 1995, they were enraged by it in 2015. That was when blockbuster director Roland Emmerich presented his version of the story, also called Stonewall.

Like Finch, Emmerich concentrated on a white, cisgender surrogate from the Midwest, Danny ( Jeremy Irvine ), who encounters a panoply of Greenwich Village characters. The film centers on Danny's coming-out—his attending the Pride parade is the film's coda, and it's him who throws the first brick that launches the uprising.

By the the time Emmerich's film was launched, historians had been for years expounding on the contributions that Rivera had played in activism at the time of the uprising; similarly, they noted the role of Marsha P. Johnson, who is a character in Emmerich's film, a depiction critics dismissed as condescending and being for comic relief.

Not only were critics unkind, members of the public picketed some showings; a protest was held at a Chicago screening. Many among the 2015 audience were all too aware of Hollywood's tendency to whitewash its narratives and had higher expectations for its depictions of race and gender-identity issues. Depicting Stonewall with the drag queens only in the background could no longer cut it.

All this begs the question: Was Stonewall in the end an unfilmable event these filmmakers shouldn't have touched? So much of Stonewall's "true" history has to be uncovered by word of mouth, from participants whose narrations might be unreliable. But perhaps probing these narrative and representational shortcomings have at least led to discussions about the uprising's origins and the identities of several of the principal participants. Perhaps it also would lead to discussions of how filmmakers—even when tackling ostensibly universal LGBT issues—have in the end been uncomfortable discussing racial and gender-related politics.

Fortunately, though, we don't need the cinema to offer us histories of Stonewall and the LGBT rights movement. Multiple historians, such as John D'Emilio here in Chicago, have compiled comprehensive accounts of the movement, and our city has Gerber Hart Library & Archive among its resources. Furthermore, Illinois schoolchildren will soon have LGBT history as part of their curriculum, ensuring that the collective memory of Stonewall will not be lost to the ages.

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