How to make a revolution boring

Directed by Rolland Emmerich
Written by Jon Robin Baitz
Starring Jeremy Irvine, Johnny Beauchamp, and Vladimir Alexis
Rated R

Let’s get this part over with first: Roland Emmerich, the director of the new film Stonewall as well as the disaster blockbusters The Fourth of July and The Day After Tomorrow, is a dope. After the gay, German-born director learned about the plight of homeless LGBT youth, he decided to make a movie about them, and that movie transmogrified into the story of homeless LGBT youth who helped start the 1969 Stonewall Riots, considered the symbolic, though not actual, beginning of the modern gay rights movement. This wasn’t the dopey part; it’s actually a laudable idea. But Emmerich, used to making studio movies with $200 million budgets, treated his independently financed $17 million film about an iconic moment in both American and queer history like a consumer product. He allowed test audiences – the focus groups of the movie business – to convince him that in order to draw in straight moviegoers that the film’s protagonist should be a fictional white-bread white boy from Indiana who is “straight-acting.” He told Buzzfeed, “I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting. He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him.”

As problematic as “straight-acting” is as a term, it’s still used rather widely by gay and straight people, though certainly not the progressive ones. You’d think that the director of a movie about the Stonewall Riots, which were a response to constant police harassment of LGBT people in New York City who refused to act straight, would be a bit more enlightened. Of course, he focus-grouped a film about a historical event, so maybe enlightenment is not something we should expect from him. Yeah, Emmerich is a dope.

Yes, he deserves a great deal of the criticism he’s had heaped on him. In addition to the test audience filmmaking and the “straight-acting” comment, the movie is not good. It’s ham-fisted, overstuffed, often cloying, and its good parts are easily overshadowed by its dreadful parts (and more on that later). But I can’t agree with the most damning attack: the claim that the film is a white-supremacist text that erases the people of color, femme queens, the transgender people, the butch lesbians, and all of the other not-straight-acting people who started the Stonewall Riots. Simply, that claim is that Stonewall white washes Stonewall. Danny, after all, is shown to throw the first brick of the riots!

I read numerous criticisms of the film that stated that the riots were started by black drag queens, so Danny’s presence and role was a lie. The popular twitter personality Sam Kalidi joked, “If your Grindr profile says ‘No fats, no fems, no Asians, no Blacks, and no guys over 30’ you’ll love Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall.” For Queerty, he posted a photo of three Barbie dolls with “Diana Ross & The Supremes Biopic Directed by Roland Emmerich.” Lady Bunny responded with photo of Anne Hathaway sitting on a bus with the caption, “‘It took one woman sitting down to make a nation stand up.’ ROSA: The Movie, directed by Roland Emmerich.”

Funny, yes. But also wrong. Danny is the proxy for the audience; his experience is meant to introduce the audience to the homeless LGBT kids in Greenwich Village. The white proxy is a tired, cynical trope in films about the Other, and its use is based on close-minded assumption of the demographic of an audience and its inability to empathize. Some proxies are worse than others – think Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves – but Danny’s failure as a character is more in his spectacular dullness than his ahistoricity. Despite some claims to the contrary, there were a huge number homeless, formerly middle-class gay kids like Danny (though probably more interesting than him) rioting outside the Stonewall Inn that June night. This is clear if you read the historical accounts, from David Carter’s masterful book Stonewall to the narratives of the riots’ veterans. But if you based your knowledge of Stonewall on Facebook memes, which sadly seems to be what many people have done, you’d think that the film has an army of Dannys replacing all of the people of color who were at Stonewall. But that’s not what the movie depicts.

Kicked out of his house for being gay by his wretched football coach father, Danny (Jeremy Irvine) takes the bus to New York and immediately is taken in by Ray, a fem Puerto Rican street prostitute who is usually in some sort of drag. Ray (Johnny Beauchamp) is clearly based on the pioneering transgender rights activist and Stonewall veteran Sylvia Rivera, whose given name was Ray though had been renamed Sylvia by the age that Ray is in the film. Ray is different from Sylvia in some key ways – Sylvia was much more politically aware than Ray, who is more concerned with survival and, unfortunately, her unrequited love for Danny – but it is Ray’s quips of street wisdom, her wise-cracks, and her righteous anger at the world that has rejected, beaten, and spit on her that give Stonewall what little life it has. And Johnny Beauchamp is fantastic as Ray, making her as dynamic and sympathetic as Danny is wooden and dull.

Additionally, while entirely too much of the film follows Danny around on his mopey quest for self-acceptance, two of the best scenes in the film focus on black drag queens. Marsha P. Johnson, played by Otoja Abit, was a legendary figure from Stonewall, and along with Rivera founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group that helped homeless trans women and runaways. Johnson is depicted reverentially, as funny and kind, and her flamboyant reaction to her arrest at the Stonewall Inn incites the soon-to-be rioters. And she then gets to sock the evil bar owner Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman) before he escapes; the scene is entirely fictionalized, but it’s satisfying.

Queen Cong (Vladimir Alexis) has the most profound moment in the film. While Danny, Ray, and their friends are being evicted from a filthy SRO, Cong rips down the curtains to create an outfit. Danny is appalled and says, “You just take what you want, don’t you?” Yes, she replies, because she has nothing. And then: “I have not seen one dream come true on Christopher Street, baby. Not one.” This bitter fatalism sets up the anger and frustration to spills into the riots, and Alexis’s delivery is chilling.

Based on the drag queen Zazu Nova, who is credited with sparking the riot along with Johnson and a white hustler named Jackie Hormona, Cong carries a brick in his bag, just in case he wants to smash a store window and steal something. She pulls it out of her bag as the riot begins and Danny takes it from her, trying to stop her from throwing it. (Because Danny is that boring.) But Danny’s erstwhile boyfriend, the creepy assimilationist activist Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), thinks Danny is going to throw it and tells him not to. Pissed at Trevor’s demanding tone, Danny does throw it, shattering a window above the bar.

This scene enraged me for two reasons. First, after the disastrous response to the film’s very white first trailer led to calls for a boycott of the film, Jeremy Irvine made a point of claiming that Cong “pulls out the first brick of the riot scenes.” I posted his statement on Facebook to argue that the movie was going to be less offensive than the trailer made it out to be. Yes, Cong pulls it out – but Danny throws it! Irvine’s dissembling was both ballsy and bizarre. My jaw dropped in the theater.

Second, while Danny’s brick throwing is not necessarily historically inaccurate – the “first brick” was actually a garbage can and no one knows who threw it – the image of the lame white boy literally stealing a black queen’s agency from her hands is galling. The use of the white proxy can at least be cynically and barely justified by someone who wants straight white folks in middle America to understand the experience of LGBT people, but ripping the symbolic power from Cong, and therefore from Zuza Nova, is when the good will that the depictions of Ray, Marsha, and Cong had built up in me dissolved.

I can understand why Emmerich and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz (a once-important artist who should know better) had Danny throw the brick. It completes his transformation from naïve bumbler to angry activist, and as the proxy, this could elicit similar feelings in the audience. But Danny doesn’t stay angry. After the riots, he goes to Columbia University and, we’re told, barely visits Ray, Cong, and the rest of group who saved his life. Since Danny is the proxy, then is the audience also supposed to abandon these street kids who started the revolution?

Stonewall’s crime is its cynicism and its great failure is its emphasis on Danny. It is true, as Alex Jung pointed out on Vulture, that Sylvia Rivera and P. Marsha Johnson would be much more interesting and important people to build a film around. (It’s not true, as Jung claims, that Stonewall erases them from “the record.” One bad, clearly fictionalized movie doesn’t have that power.) Luckily, David Francis, who directed the Oscar-nominated ACT-UP documentary How to Survive a Plague, knows that and he has just begun filming Sylvia & Marsha. I do hope that the many people outraged by Stonewall, for both the right and wrong reasons, support the documentary when it arrives, to help show that white proxy theory is hooey. Until then, I hope they pay to see the wonderful comedy about two trans prostitutes in Los Angeles Tangerine, watch the great black lesbian film Pariah on Netflix, buy the DVD of new documentary about Puerto Rican transgender women Mala Mala in November, and, even better, redirect their rage towards passing laws protecting transgender people, pushing for more services and housing for homeless LGBT youth, and supporting the efforts of local LGBT historical societies that are educating the public about our struggle.

Virgil and Burns

I moved to East Hollywood six months ago, to a neighborhood that some people called Virgil Village. It’s a mostly working-class Mexican and Salvadoran neighborhood and has been for decades[1. The 2013 estimates were 60% Hispanic, 20% non-Hispanic white, and 14% Asian. The median household income is $53,046. Around 14% of my neighborhood lives in poverty.], and it has an increasingly number of young, usually but not always, white members of the so-called creative class. While I’m not young anymore, I’m a member of that class by privy of my education and privilege. And I chose the neighborhood partly because of its proximity to both Silver Lake and Hollywood, but mostly because I could (barely) afford the large one bedroom apartment in a building from the 1920s. I guess I’m a gentrifier in that I live in a vaguely[2. It’s the best maintained complex on the street, but our plant potters were stolen from a Shell station and there are more than a few repairs that I’d recommend.] gentrified complex mostly populated by people similar to me. I guess the neighborhood as a whole is slowly gentrifying, but we’re several years from getting a Trader Joe’s; the closest Starbucks is still 1.1 miles away, which is pretty far in a Starbucks-packed place like Los Angeles.

My current neighbors have yet to say or do anything in my presence that is as offensive as the many of things I heard when I lived downtown, where the contrast between epic poverty and epic wealth is particularly glaring, and many of the people with that wealth (or think they’re destined for that wealth) are disturbingly unaware of their carelessness. Yes, I’ve heard complaints about my new neighborhood[3. Los Angeles Parking Enforcement likes to levy their regressive taxation rather aggressively in this rather poor neighborhood, while sanitation doesn’t bother to pick up the large items, like couches and TVs, left as trash on the curbs.], but the ones I’ve heard aren’t based in a disdain for the culture or class of the vast majority of its residents.

Yesterday evening, I was walking up Virgil, and a half block from the corner of Burns, I saw a stereotypically dressed and affected hipster — that slur for creative class types — strolling around the corner laughing on his cell phone. He strolled right into the collection of votive candles that have populated the southwest corner of that intersection since Leonardo Gabriel Ramirez, a 17 year old boy from the neighborhood, was shot and killed on May 23. He was the fifth person murdered in East Hollywood in the last 12 months, and the youngest. The crime is unsolved, as most crimes in poor communities are, especially when the victim is not white.

After kicking half of them over, he laughed in surprise and just kept walking. As he passed me, I yelled, “That’s a fucking memorial!” He didn’t even turn. I hadn’t stopped walking myself, and I was steaming by the time I got to the other side of the street. I turned, and I went back to the memorial. I righted all of the votives, propped up the ones that were too chipped to stay up by themselves, and I lit the one that had a wick I could reach with my lighter. I was still angry for the next half hour. When I was walking home late that night, I came upon the memorial again. The candle I’d lit was out, but someone had lit another. That’s when I took this picture[3. My next door neighbor took pictures of the memorial soon after its creation.].

I don’t know this guy. I don’t know if he even lived in my zipcode. I don’t know if he was drunk and not in command of his full faculties. I don’t know if he’s normally so disrespectful, or if he even understood what those candles were for. Of course, you’d have to be pretty unaware of your surroundings not to know what a grouping of votive candles in such a place might be. I don’t know if he’s the kind of gentrifier that are so easily maligned. But he seemed to be. What I saw was a young white man of a certain station who treated a local symbol of mourning like garbage. He was careless; his laughter and his phonecall were more important. He didn’t understand that he lived in a community where his neighbors were grieiving; he didn’t seem to think that he was part of that community, a community that is culturally, historically, and socioeconomically specific.

I don’t know enough about the politics of gentrification[4. I wouldn’t even know where to start. The Google Scholar search is insane. But there’s a musical about gentrification in Brooklyn by The Civilians. And some great humor by Mike Albo and Amanda Duarte], and I may be stretching to connect this man’s behavior to that thorny problem, which is particularly thorny in Los Angeles, where the housing shortage is grave. It might just be that this was just an example of a jerk and a misunderstanding. But his behavior seemed as symbolic of gentrification as those candles are of grief.


It took a couple hours, but I’ve started crying. Partly, it’s the staggering shift from my childhood in Cincinnati, when and where being gay was treated more or less the same as being a pedophile, to my adulthood in LA, when and where my gayness is at least protected by the state (and the State) and the vast, vast majority of people I deal with on a daily basis either celebrate who I am or don’t give a rat’s ass. Partly, it’s remembering my wedding, when I married Rob, back when it wasn’t even legal in New York, and it will always be one of the greatest days of my life. Partly, it’s because of remembering losing Prop 8 and the debilitating sorrow I felt. Partly, it’s because that sorrow was made powerfully profound knowing that my neighbors and some of my family members and millions of strangers had contributed to it. Partly, it’s that my marriage and my subsequent partnership didn’t survive to this day, that having the right to love doesn’t give you the ability to make it last. Partly, it’s knowing how this ruling will change the lives, in concrete ways, of friends I have in Michigan and Ohio and Texas (and everywhere else), and these changes, the assurances and protections, are so needed and so great. Partly, it’s that I haven’t had any coffee yet, since I haven’t been able to tear my eyes from the computer screen. Partly, it’s knowing that I am going to the wedding of my dear friend Curtis in a few months, and it will be the first time that I will be at the wedding of two gay people and it won’t be a subversive act, and that is such a relief.

His truth is marching on

Today is Martin Luther King’s birthday. He would have been 86. Today is also the day the Academy Award nominations were announced. Selma, the brilliant film about King and the Selma marches of 1965, was nominated for Best Picture, but its director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo were not, and those are as egregious snubs as any in many years. Here’s my review, which can also be found at San Diego LGBT Weekly:

Directed by Ava DuVernay
Written by Paul Webb
Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, and Carmen Ejogo
At your local multiplex

Selma, the film about Martin Luther King and the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, is an extraordinary film: wrenching, inspiring, and impeccably made. As a depiction of one of the most important events of the Civil Rights Movement, it is also more socially and politically relevant to our contemporary world than any feature film released this year. Its connection to the recent protests against racist police brutality is the reason that Selma is essential viewing and also the reason why so many people who normally wouldn’t give a second thought to historical accuracy in movies have wrapped themselves into the controversy about the film and its depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

In 1965, Martin Luther King had just won the Nobel Peace Prize. Two years prior he had made the “I have a dream” speech at the Great March on Washington, which helped propel the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But blacks in the South still faced numerous barriers to voting, from being forced to pass absurd tests to requiring a current voter to vouch for them, particularly difficult if there were no black voters around. In 1965, King wanted Johnson to use his rather great political power to pass a comprehensive voters’ rights bill. But Johnson wanted to focus on his War on Poverty that year. This disagreement is inarguably fact, but the fictionalized depictions of King and Johnson’s actual arguments have riled a bunch of white people who can’t bear to imagine Johnson was a cynical politician. (Note: It is inarguable fact that Johnson was a cynical politician. That’s one of the reasons he got so much done.)

The events in Selma, a town with a majority of black residents, only 2% of whom could vote, helped force the Voting Rights Act into existence. Selma is about how that happened, how King’s presence in Selma brought the media, which in turn showed how the Alabama state troopers viciously beat peaceful black protesters who were trying to raise awareness about their disenfranchisement, which in turn brought more protesters and more support, from both Johnson and the American people, for a voting rights bill.

Selma has two main plots. One is focused on the political machinations of the march, both among King (David Oyelowo), Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and intransigent Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and among the civil rights activists from King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had been organizing in Selma before King arrived. These are fascinating, both because of how they humanize and complicate iconic historical figures but also because they depict pragmatic, sometime even crass, strategizing around events that popular history have made to seem purely about the forces of good versus evil. For example, one of the reasons King and his associates wanted to march in Selma was because they knew that its sheriff would brutalize the protesters, thus garnering sympathy from the nation.

Selma’s other plot focuses on the emotional toll of the civil rights movement. Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), King’s wife, is frustrated by his constant absence, the danger they are in, and how close to the truth the rumors of his infidelity are. King himself wonders if he can ever succeed and whether he will survive. And in smaller, perfectly crafted subplots, the people of Selma struggle – in particular Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) and Jimmie Lee Johnson (Keith Stanfield) – for dignity and for their lives. And in the epic sequence focused on Bloody Sunday, the day when Alabama troopers savagely attacked the marchers, director Ava DuVernay brings to life one of the most horrific moments of the 1960s with such skill I was left in tears for the rest of the film and for sometime after.

DuVernay’s work on Selma is tremendous, and it announces a major American filmmaker. Her recreations of well documented events are flawless, but so are her quieter, mostly fictionalized, scenes, such as those between King and Coretta or between Cooper and Selma’s voter registrar. The performances she pulled from her cast, in particular Ejogo, Winfrey, Stanfield, and Oyelowo, are roundly wonderful. What the amazing Oyelowo does as King is to make a legendary and iconic hero into a man – a great, flawed, human man.

Music. 2014.

Yes, the Golden Teddy Awards for Most Excellence in Music is being posted in a timely fashion. I know, shocking. Anyway, here it is. These are a bunch of my favorite tunes from the last year. If you just want the playlist of videos, you can go here to my YouTube playlist “2014.” And here’s a Spotify playlist of the Golden Teddy Award winners and various runners-up and honorable mentions not mentioned in this post:

Now for the awards!

Most Excellence in 1991: Madonna, “Living for Love.”

I have a teensy bit of sympathy for Madonna, who claimed “artistic rape” when a few dozen demos from her upcoming album were leaked. She released final versions of six of the songs just before Christmas, and I’m one of the folks who thinks these songs (and the demos) signal possibly her best album in a decade. One of the six is “Living for Love,” which could have been on Erotic: it is 1991 retro sing-song house. It’s a rump shaker, as they say. I’m looking forward to the remixes.

Runner up: Clean Bandit ft. Jess Glynne, “Rather Be.”

This could have been thumping at any East Village club in 1991. It’s awesome.

Most Excellence in Having a Voice that Makes You… OMG THAT VOICE: Sam Smith

He’s, like, 14 years old and sounds like George Michael and Boy George’s perfect pitched love child. He can also write a sad song as well as anyone, except maybe Adele. Also: Gay!

Most Excellence in Being Awesome But Being More Awesome with Dancing: Future Islands, “Seasons (Waiting on You).”

This is a great song, but after you see Future Islands rock it on Letterman, the song becomes something epic. Because that dancing. Just. Wow.

Most Excellence in Focus Grouped, Lowest Common Denominator, Cheesy Pop: Taylor Swift, “Blank Space.”

This song is just perfect. I can’t help but succumb to the efforts of the evil geniuses who constructed it from sonic crack and mind control algorithms.

Most Excellence in Smelly Cheesy Pop: Coldplay, “A Sky Full of Stars.”

I refuse to hate Coldplay out of some misplaced hipster snobbery. This is a perfect pop song, mashing up de rigueur dance beats, driving rock, and infectious glee.

Most Excellence in Party Albums: Tie!

La Roux’s second album Trouble in Paradise is not the genius that their first was, but it is a perfect put-it-on-and-be-happy collection of songs. Poppy, dancey, funny, and never dull.

Jungle’s first album sounds like Earth Wind and Fire filtered through Hot Chip and TV on the Radio. Sorta. The album is delight all the way through, with a driving beat perfect for your desk cool-kid cocktail hour.

Most Excellence in Songs that Made Me Cry in the Theater

If there were recordings for “And I’m Painting” from the musical Fortress of Solitude and the last song in the show The Great Immensity, I’d put them here. They’re not recorded yet. Both are written by my friend Michael Friedman, and they’re beautiful and wrenching and made me cry in the Public Theater last year.

Most Excellence in Wrongness: Tove Lo, “Habits.”

I can’t believe this song is on the radio. What Tove Lo describes doing in order to get over her ex is, to say the least, unhealthy. But fun!

Most Excellence in Telling It Like It Is: Adore Delano, “DTF.”

Adore Delano was the runner-up for last season’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, and this was her first single, which is filthy, insane, and totally her.

Most Excellence in Singles, Top 5

Hozier, “Take Me to Church.”

No song was more indelible to my ears this year, and not because it’s on heavy rotation on every radio station in the world right now. It’s haunting, gorgeous, and gave us Hozier, who is a really big deal.

Robyn and Röyksopp, “Monument.”

The best song on their EP and arguably as great as anything she’s put out in the last 15 years.

Hercules & Love Affair and John Grant, “I Try to Talk to You.”

Hercules returned to form with The Feast of the Broken Heart and their collaboration with John Grant is the highlight of the album. It’s gorgeous and heartbreaking, like everything Grant does, and impossible not to groove to, like Hercules’s best stuff. That piano.

The War on Drugs, “Under the Pressure.”

It feels like a more robust James song, but a bit more American, rootsy, and Dylany.

Perfume Genius,”Queen.”

There’s no comparison. This song is just singular.

Most Excellence in Albums, Top 5

St. Vincent, St. Vincent.

Hearing this for the first time was like hearing The Lion and the Cobra for the first: What. The Fuck. It doesn’t sound like anything else, except for rock and pop and Liz Phair and Tori Amos and a bunch of other stuff from planets far away.

TV on the Radio, Seeds.

My favorite band dropped their best album in 10 years right before Thanksgiving. It’s distorted and weird and fun and happy and sounds, like all of their stuff does, like no one else.

Sam Smith, In the Lonely Hour.

I mentioned him above. This is the best pop album of the year. Beautiful, accessible, sad.

D’Angelo, Black Messiah.

Mostly, this album made me re/discover D’Angelo, who is a genius. It’s beautiful and political and odd and wonderful.

Coldplay, Ghost Stories.

Mentioned above. At first, I thought this album just sucked. And then, after a couple listens, I realized how beautiful and mournful and smart it was. I listened to it a zillion times. So there.