When it comes to bringing one of the most pivotal and defining chapters of the modern gay rights movement to the big screen, director Roland Emmerich- whose oeuvre consists of bombastic disaster films including The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day– seems like an ill fit. Yet, here comes Stonewall, Emmerich’s soggy, shapeless, woefully misjudged re-imagined take of the historic 1969 Stonewall Riots. Stonewall is a different sort of disaster movie, one that gracelessly plays fast and loose with history and renders an utterly worthy subject as laughably hokey at best, maddeningly cringe-worthy and outright offensive at worst.
Well, the movie attracted early criticism well before its recent world premiere at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival. The first trailer for Stonewall gained controversy for its supposed “whitewashing” of history. Namely, Emmerich and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz’s (a Pulitzer Prize finalist for the 2011 play Other Desert Cities) decision to frame their Stonewall around a fictitious (read: white) all-American farm boy named Danny Winters (played by British actor Jeremy Irvine, War Horse)- historical record widely acknowledges that the Stonewall Riots were kindled by drag queens, lesbians and trans women of color even if who threw the first brick is left for debate.
Still, and perhaps, stupidly so, I awaited Emmerich’s Stonewall not in the pretense that the film would be perfect but because progress is still stubbornly slow and a film version focused on the Stonewall Riots could hopefully still have value and impact, especially in a year that laid witness to huge leaps forward for gay rights in America. If history had to be rejiggered and Emmerich felt it was necessary to create a hunky white boy to make his Stonewall more marketable, more accessible for the masses, while cowardly and inexcusable, perhaps it could still emotionally recall a time and place and movingly render the birth of a process that led to one of the greatest twentieth century rebellions. Perhaps, too, it would rouse an urgency and necessity for the great movie based on this subject to come out of the gates, eventually. Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all.
Yet in Emmerich’s half-hearted Stonewall, Stonewall itself is left largely sidelined, along with various supporting characters of color and the bland white boy is, alarmingly and misguidedly, its featured attraction. As the film begins, fresh-faced Danny finds himself new to the scene in Greenwich Village, having been kicked out of his Indiana home once a fling with the high school quarterback surfaces around his small town. Naïve and frightened, yet perfectly coiffed and striking in his form-fitting white T-shirt, Danny nonetheless manages fairly quickly to make friends with various street urchins on and around Christopher Street, namely Ray/Ramona (Jonny Beauchamp, Penny Dreadful), a sassy Puerto Rican hustler who nearly bends over backwards to accommodate and school the straight-laced Danny of the ways of the street- Danny doesn’t even know who Judy Garland is. Had the movie not been entitled Stonewall, the premise of a sexually awakened teenager finding strength within himself could perhaps be admirable (that is still a rather underserved market) as would Emmerich’s well-intentioned plea that his film pays homage and respect to the homeless LGBTQ youth and their strife, both past and present. Trouble is, neither track is cohesively handled, neither properly fleshed out nor authentically felt.
It takes way too much ridiculous narrative exposition (including unnecessary flashbacks to Danny’s former life) before the film even ventures into the Stonewall Inn, the dive bar that served as Christopher Street’s epicenter. Without running water nor a liquor license, the mob-ruled Stonewall Inn was one of the few places where the queer collective could, if not legally, congregate even though the threat of police raids and monstrous abuse was commonplace. In Emmerich’s indelicate handling, Danny is a hot property from the very beginning and it’s his experience that’s front and center, not the atmosphere around him. Pimps like Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman) admire Danny’s straight-acting vibe, as does journalist/activist Trevor (a vacant but frequently shirtless Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who rather deplores the street trash that frequents this type of establishment. It’s all about the damned white guy. Even Ray, a uneasy and messily contextualized stereotype (somewhat enlivened by the grace of Beauchamp’s charisma), spends nearly the entire film aflutter over Danny.
It would be unfair to put too much of the blame on Irvine’s earnestly flavorless performance. Baitz’s erratic screenplay does no one any favors, neither does Emmerich’s rendering in tone or style. Stonewall may have been a passion project for the openly gay German filmmaker, but there’s dangerously little passion on display. The cheap, drab sets look like decades-old castoffs from Sesame Street (this essential New York story was actually shot in Canada), so artificial you half expect the street kids of Christopher Street to break out in a chorus of “It’s a Hard-Knock Life.” Subtlety has never been one of Emmerich’s virtues as a filmmaker but his Stonewall has all of the nuance and sensitivity of a 1950s era anti-gay propaganda film. And whatever noble intentions brought him aboard this project in the first place, Stonewall does little in advancing or educating an audience that may very well have little to no knowledge the proceedings.
What makes Stonewall so disingenuous, if not downright offensive, is the worshipful gaze the film bestows to Danny, never more than at the films’ boiling point- the beginnings of the riot itself. For all the clunky dialogue, mercilessly mishandled characterizations and unsteady mix of time and place, there was, perhaps, still a glimmer of a chance that once the riots themselves started, the movie could possibly redeem itself ever so slightly. After all, bombast is what Emmerich does best. Yet the film hits its nadir and will likely infuriate and madden any of it’s (to be certain) tiny audience as Danny is the one who throws the first brick following a terse, unplanned police raid. Artistic license is a given in films that delve into history, but then there’s nonsense like this. A pre-credits montage at the end of the film profiles various members of the Stonewall Riots, any of whom would have served as a more proper center for a feature film (including trans activist Marsha P. Johnson, played as stagy comic relief by Otoja Abit). It’s difficult not to be livid.
Verdict: 1 out of 5
Plenty of great activism movies- for recent examples look no further than the Oscar-winning Selma or the criminally under-seen Pride– have made rousing works of art by deftly detailing the process of a civil rights rebellion. Stonewall, despite being framed as a depiction of the most noteworthy gay rights riot in modern American history, is not about process, has little interest in authentically creating or recalling a time and place. Instead director Roland Emmerich and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz play lip service to the efforts of the individuals who took part in Stonewall and focus their energy on an ineffectual young white male. It’s a shame and a missed opportunity. Hopefully, now that this crappy movie has surfaced, an elegant filmmaker can take the ranks to give this story justice.