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'Stonewall' sparks backlash with trailers alone

"Stonewall" is based on the riots in Greenwich

"Stonewall" is based on the riots in Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969 in which members of New York's LGBT community protested against discrimination. The controversial film hits theaters Sept. 25, 2015. Credit: Philippe Bosse

It often goes forgotten that Judy Garland died a week before the Stonewall uprising, the event usually commemorated as the Boston Massacre of the Gay Liberation Movement. The Stonewall bar which, like most gay establishments of its era was mob-owned and subject to police harassment, was a Greenwich Village joint for the marginalized of the marginalized, an unlicensed hangout for transvestites and other members of the demi-demi-monde. The death of a tragic gay icon had emotions running even higher than normal. On the night of June 28, 1969, the place exploded.

"Stonewall," the movie dramatization getting its initial release on Sept. 25, after a world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, does remember Judy: Characters discuss her, debate her significance to gay culture, honor her memory. But as directed by eminent gay filmmaker Roland Emmerich -- who has already wreaked havoc on such landmarks as the White House ("Independence Day"), the New York City subway system ("Godzilla") and the Statue of Liberty ("The Day After Tomorrow") -- the film seems to forget a few other details. And this has sparked a pre-release backlash against the film by members of the LGBT community (and an online petition against it signed by 23,000-plus people).

The public-relations crisis of "Stonewall" may be rooted in advertising: The original trailer, which started the ruckus, makes it clear that the principal character is Danny (Jeremy Irvine), a white gay kid who leaves his Midwestern home after being ejected by his parents, arrives in New York and becomes a pivotal figure in the Stonewall riot. The makeup of the Stonewall crowd was, shall we say, considerably more diverse than that. Hence the outcry.

"Let's start with the fact that the protagonist of the film is a gay, cisgender white man," wrote Teresa Jusino on the website The Mary Sue ("cis" referring to those who accept the gender assignment they got at birth). "Now, I get that a film like this 'needs to play in Middle America.' I get having a protagonist that most folks can 'relate to.' But here's the thing -- most folks are women, so really, if you want to have a protagonist that most people relate to . . ."

The complaint isn't that Emmerich's film seems to have left out women, but that it leaves out transgender women of color. We say "seems" because the only evidence anyone has of what's in Emmerich's film at this point is the trailers. The first makes the film look like the typically Hollywoodized story of a cornfed white guy who, like Kevin Costner in "Dances With Wolves," arrives on the scene and rallies the natives into an insurgent force. The second, seemingly frightened follow-up trailer makes an obvious attempt to showcase the contributions of such people as Marsha P. Johnson, who -- along with her friend, drag queen and gay pioneer Sylvia Rivera -- was instrumental in the event that became known as Stonewall.

Adding to the consternation among LGBT voices is that Johnson is played by a straight black male Otaja Abit. One also has to wonder why, if Johnson's role in the film is so key, she wasn't included in the original trailer.

Adding to all of this is Hollywood's less than sterling record as regards the casting of gays, ethnics and minorities. From the blackfaced characters of D.W. Griffith to various Caucasian Charlie Chans, the record isn't great. Although there's a catalog's worth of straight actors who've played gay, including Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Colin Firth, Dennis Quaid and Charlize Theron, the complaint vis a vis "Stonewall" isn't about whether star Irvine is straight or gay, but rather that he plays the kind of "straight-acting" gay man who would pass as hetero even among the denizens of late '60s Greenwich Village. Irvine has taken a defensive posture.

"I saw the movie for the first time last week and can assure you all that it represents almost every race and division of society that was so fundamental to one of the most noteworthy civil rights movements in living history," the actor wrote on Instagram.

Screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz has said his "Stonewall" screenplay "is not the definitive story of a revolution," but it's "about an awakening, one young man's awakening to the reality of what it means to be 'the other.' " For his part, Emmerich has said "Stonewall" comes out of his work with the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center and the plight of homeless LGBT youth who very often have been kicked out of their homes and have nowhere to go.

Nevertheless, he said, when the film comes out, "audiences will see that it deeply honors the real-life activists who were there -- including Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Ray Castro -- and all the brave people who sparked the civil rights movement which continues to this day."

In the age of Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox ("Orange Is the New Black"), it wouldn't seem that giving credit to transgender activists would be that big a deal. It's almost more surprising that someone as commercially savvy as Emmerich would make a movie which -- again, based only on the trailers -- seems so hidebound and conformist in its portrayal of what was a revolutionary moment in American cultural history. It may be a sign of our times that a trailer would engender a backlash against a movie that virtually no one has seen. It may also be, commercially speaking, the best thing that could have happened to the movie.

Movies that caused outrage, before hitting theaters

Some movies have generated anger and resentment long before the public ever had a chance to see them -- which didn't mean they weren't ultimately profitable, but sometimes the controversy became the point. Where "Stonewall" winds up is anyone's guess, but here are four others that got people agitated long before they had a chance to see the movie (if they ever did . . .):

THE INTERVIEW (2014) This James Franco-Seth Rogen political satire made fun of North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un and was threatened with a terrorist attacks by a group called "Guardians for Peace," an outfit linked by the FBI to North Korea. With theater chains panicking, Sony Pictures moved the opening from October to December, reportedly re-editing it, and then ultimately putting it out online only. It became Sony's most successful digital release.

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004) The Pope doesn't usually get involved in these things, but when John Paul II allegedly said, "It is as it was" after an early screening of Mel Gibson's Jesus movie, it elevated the argument over the intensely violent New Testament drama to previously unseen heights of film-critical controversy. Gibson, who had been courting evangelicals throughout the countdown to the February 2004 release, was subsequently accused of an anti-Semitic interpretation of the Christian passion, and incurred the wrath of "South Park."

LOLITA (1997) Not the '62 Stanley Kubrick classic, but the remake, which generated considerable controversy pre-release because of two factors: Dominique Swain, who was playing novelist Vladimir Nabokov's precocious "nymphet," was only 15 during shooting (never mind that Sue Lyon was 14 when she made Kubrick's film); and the director was Adrian Lyne, whose oeuvre included such potboilers as "9 1/2 Weeks" and "Fatal Attraction." As it turns out, the controversy was the best thing that happened to it.

DOGMA (1999) Provocative bait, to be sure, and one its critics rose to the occasion: Kevin Smith, a professed devout Catholic, got some of the congregation in an uproar for his portrayal of two renegade angels (Ben Affleck, Matt Damon), a 13th apostle (Chris Rock) and God (Bud Cort and Alanis Morissette).

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