Why I Won’t Boycott STONEWALL (But Will Support Indie Queer & Trans Film)

I think many of my friends may be wondering why I haven’t yet commented on or shared numerous articles condemning the new Stonewall (Roland Emmerich, 2015) film or calling for folks to boycott it that have circulated in the last few days since the release of the film’s trailer. It’s not because I’m incredibly busy finishing my own documentary about the whitewashing of LGBT politics, history, and pride events (though that is really what I should be doing right now instead of writing this). Nor is it because I don’t have any thoughts or concerns about the film. It’s because… wait for it…

I haven’t actually seen the film yet.  And neither have any of the people who have written criticisms about Stonewall or called for a boycott of it, as far as I can tell.

As Yasmin Nair writes on Facebook (apparently an article is forthcoming and I will link as soon as it is available): “you can’t have an opinion about something you haven’t watched or read, and it is really, really bad for discourse and public culture in general to be making blanket statements about things you don’t know.” I am firmly against banning and censoring texts because I believe that ANY — yes, any and every — text can be legitimate object of study and inquiry. And it is sometimes the ones that are the most offensive that need to be studied and critiqued the most.

In addition, as a filmmaker who has been subjected to criticisms of my work from people who in the same breath vocally refused to watch the film they were condemning, I am quite aware on a personal level of what a terrible practice it is to criticize something I’ve not fully engaged with. But that is not the only reason I refuse to condemn Stonewall right here and right now. I am also a trained academic who believes in reading, and watching, primary materials (usually many times) before I write about them. And while I share most, if not all, of the concerns that I’ve read about Stonewall and they way trans people, people of color, and butch dykes so often get erased in narrative re-tellings of the riot this is precisely why, after all, I decided to make my own film on the subjectI’m going to wait until I actually see it before I write about it. Because that is what film critics, scholars, and anyone who wants to offer real critique does.

In addition, what many people who may not be as familiar with filmmaking practices and business as I am may not realize is that the trailer that has been released may not necessarily have a close relationship to the final film itself. A trailer is a marketing tool designed to attract a “broad audience” to come to the theaters and watch the film. In Hollywood-land, as we are all well aware, that usually involves centering a white cis-male hero that funders and distributors think “most people” will “relate” to. This is a racist, misogynist, and transphobic representational politic that structures advertising, production, and distribution of movies all the time. But as an editor, I am also quite aware of how one can entirely manipulate the story of a film when you cut it down to just a few minutes. So I am reserving judgement, for the moment, even though I am deeply concerned about and disgusted by the press materials for Stonewall, which clearly present the film as focusing on the story of a young, white, midwestern gay boy who makes is way to the big city (yawn/barf).

But there is more to this trailer than just the centering of a white cis gay man in the Stonewall narrative. I am enraged by the opening of the trailer, which features Barack Obama’s voice situating LGBT people as the last group still fighting to attain equal rights in the west (after the gains have presumably already been won by the Black civil rights movement and the [white] women’s movement). The ridiculousness of this narrative should be self-evident as U.S. police continue to murder Black, Indigenous, and other people of color on a daily basis, and the Black Live Matter movement continues to spread. But yet this has become a common narrative/historical trajectory in “LGBT rights” circles (see for example this ad by the Human Rights Campaign which uses the voice of none other than Morgan Freeman to lend it supposed “civil rights” cred, in addition to marshaling images from the women’s and Black civil rights movement in a way that the Stonewall trailer copies almost identically).

Here are both videos, so you can compare them side by side:

I have enormous problems with both of these narrative frameworks (the white cis hero and the linear progress narrative of LGBT “rights” discourses) present in the Stonewall trailer. Nonetheless, I still don’t know yet precisely how or in what way these narratives will manifest, if at all, in the actual film. Or what else the film may get right or wrong or ignore…

So I will go to screenings in mid-Sept when it plays here in Toronto at TIFF before the film’s general release at the end of September. And then I will most likely write about it, because I suspect Stonewall will be emblematic of contemporary mainstream LGBT culture and politics I am invested in critiquing. Maybe I’ll watch it and write about it so others don’t have to (I always appreciate it when others do this!).

But in the meantime, as an independent filmmaker, I wholeheartedly support the calls for supporting independent media on similar and other subjects. If people want to spend their money on Miss Major’s support circle or Happy Birthday Marsha!— or even my own documentary about the politics of yearly June events that so often erase, ignore, or whitewash the origins of North American pride movements that evolved out of riots and protests against police violence — rather than going to see Stonewall, that would be amazing. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to support the making of the films one wants to see. And all of these projects, in addition to being independently and community produced, are a bargain compared to Emmerich’s Stonewall (the budgets for the three projects listed above, at roughly $43,000, $50,000, and $5,000 respectively, are a fraction of the cost of Emmerich’s “little film,” which is budgeted at $12-14 million).

There are actually a lot of us struggling to make and tell alternative and radical stories. But filmmaking is especially difficult, expensive, and resource intensive, so community support independent projects is important and actually makes a huge difference in work getting made. There are also other things one can do in the absence of money to support alternative media. One great way for people to support independent films is to write about them — while the films are fundraising and after the film is done. Writing matters, a lot, both in terms of critique of the films one has problems with as well as for support of the films one admires.

So yeah, I too have major issues with mainstream representations of Stonewall, LGBT history, and a whole lot of other things (racist representations that portray most Black people in film as criminals and Arab/Muslim people as terrorists; the litany of shows and movies about wealthy, white, straight cisgender people… to name just a few). But I’m going to put my time and money into critiquing these representations, supporting independent and alternative filmmakers that share my perspectives on representational politics, and making my own work — not joining in on a boycott for a film I’ve never seen.