Even if it were possible to ignore its numerous failings at adequate representation and historical accuracy (problems that many noticed when its trailer hit the internet last month), Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall would still be a monstrosity. Its badness is nearly unfathomable. Emmerich has made several disaster movies (2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day), but his work has never achieved the level of cataclysm that Stonewall does.
The historical drama, which nominally chronicles the gay liberation riots outside New York’s Stonewall bar in the summer of 1969, is so big, broad, and dumb, it doesn’t feel so much like Oscarbait as it does a Broadway adaptation of Oscarbait. It is formally inconsistent (it’s a history lesson, no it’s a romance, no it’s group therapy, no it’s an ensemble comedy, no it’s a police procedural) and uniformly miserable. The acting is so pronounced and deliberate it pairs woefully well with the ersatz backdrops, which always look like they were shot on a soundstage (they were—for financial reasons, Emmerich shot in Montreal, not New York). The script has the subtlety of a sledgehammer, telling instead of showing each teachable moment in a movie-long series of teachable moments. “I take whatever I want and can, ‘cause if I didn’t, I’d have nothing at all,” says a black character at one point. “Nobody wants me. Not even you. I don’t have anything,” says a Latin sex worker character at another. “These kids have nothing to lose,” says an onlooker during the far-too-brief climactic rioting scene.
“I’m too mad to love anyone right now,” says Stonewall’s protagonist during the denouement. Well that makes two of us.
Stonewall itself is there, but practically only as a backdrop. When the bar is discussed, it’s mostly derided as a mob-run dive whose main clientele was hustlers and johns, and whose cocktails could not be consumed safely since there was no running water behind the bar. It was a place where a handful of people sometimes danced and took drugs that made everything look blurry and as though it were running at a reduced framerate. Sometimes it was raided by police. You get more of a sense of what it’s like to visit SeaWorld in the notoriously abysmal Jaws 3D than you do what it was like to patronize Stonewall in Stonewall. Stonewall teaches you about as much about being gay as the Aristocats taught you about being an aristocrat.
Ray Castro and Sylvia Rivera, key players in the Stonewall riots, are consolidated into one character, the ambiguously queer Ray (played Jonny Beauchamp, who delivers the movie’s rare competent performance). Marsha P. Johnson is there (Otoja Abit does the honor), but barely. I didn’t count her lines, but they can’t number more than a dozen. At the onset of the riots, in fact, Emmerich and his screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz invent a way to remove Johnson—whom many say threw the first brick—from the rioting crowd. She rejoins later, essentially just showing her face, which is about all she’s ever given to do throughout the 129 minute film.
At Stonewall’s center is the invented character Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine) who is cute, boyish, white, and naive. His story is a series of cliches—he’s a gay high school student, his peers find out and mock him, his de facto boyfriend turns his back on him, his football coach father throws him out, causing him to run away to the big city. Danny knows absolutely nothing about anything except that he likes dick. He ends up leeching off a queer person he’ll never love (Ray) until he finds one that he does (Trevor, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who then breaks his heart. Blah blah blah blah.
In the movie’s production notes, Emmerich notes that Danny is also “straight-acting,” which is a term that I can’t believe any gay man uses anymore, much less a gay man who’s taken it upon himself to teach the world about a pivotal moment in gay history. (Let the record show that Danny is no paragon of butchness, either—he’s pretty and sensitive and looks plenty damn gay to my gay eyes.) Emmerich’s framing of “straight-acting” as a positive thing for a gay man to be tells you everything you need to know about the director’s lack of competence as a community leader. He consciously watered down queerness to appeal to the masses, who are still homophobic at heart but perhaps will be less so if only they’re presented with the right kind of gay person. Here’s the full quote from the notes:
“Danny is a very straight-acting kid,” explains Emmerich, who says Danny serves as the eyes of the audience. “They can relate more strongly to him and through Danny’s eyes they’ll experience the more extreme situations depicted in the film. We had a lot of discussions about the sexual scenes and how far we should go or not go, and it was always very interesting.”
In that sense, Danny is like Looking’s Patrick (especially the Patrick of the show’s first season)—a nonthreatening touchstone who’s just as befuddled as the straights in the audience at all the gay shit. Danny goes onto lead the charge outside of the Stonewall—after he’s handed a brick by Cong (played by Vlad Alexis, who not at all incidentally is black), it is Danny who throws the first brick and then hollers, “Gay power!” His act galvanizes the crowd. He sets off the revolution.
Danny’s narrative is one not unlike that of John Carter or Dune’s Paul Atreides or Avatar’s Jake Sully—he’s an outsider who joins a group and achieves self-actualization by showing himself as the model member of said group. He is the chosen one—in this case, the best gay. This white-messiah yarn is as eye-rollingly retrograde as ever (and particularly intelligence-insulting as Danny Winters never really existed). But Danny’s importance is two-fold—he is as essential to the narrative as his invention was to getting the narrative told in the first place. Danny the character has been positioned as a solution to the problem of explaining Stonewall—that thing Obama mentioned one time—to idiots who may be allergic to gay people. As Irvine, who plays Danny, explains in the press notes, “There’s a hundred different stories about what sparked the Stonewall riots and what we did was, rather than choose one which people would’ve gone, ‘Oh it didn’t happen like that,’ we created this fictionalized version that sets it off.”
Rather than choose something debatable, the filmmakers created something definitively untrue. Rather than exploring the conflicting stories of what sparked the riot (was it Marsha P. Johnson’s shot glass, a high heel, a brick, or what?), which could have made for a fascinating formal exercise, they just credited the white guy. Rather than really examine Stonewall, a place obviously brimming with unheard stories of extreme living, Emmerich and company decided to center their narrative on a dude who drops by the bar a few times while floating through the city (only to settle uptown at Columbia when the summer ends). Imagine, just one time, an ensemble led by a character who isn’t white and “straight-acting.” Imagine people of color being used for more than just support.
Emmerich told Vulture that he thought the film represented the diversity of the Stonewall’s clientele (70 percent black/Latino according to one person who was there) “very well,” but don’t be fooled. Stonewall is more of the same: The white guy’s in the foreground, the people of color are in the back. The image atop this post accurately represents Stonewall’s m.o. At the end of the film a title card is displayed: “This film is dedicated to the unsung heroes of the Stonewall riots.” This feels like mockery—the unsung heroes remain unsung in Emmerich’s song. They get a few lines at best. If they’re lucky, their actual names are used.
Emmerich described the making of the film as an “uphill battle” and Stonewall is marked with detrimental compromise every step of the way. Virtually every movie is a patchwork of negotiations—the best ones don’t let you notice the seams. Gay subject matter is often considered particularly hard to produce and harder to sell, but complacency with society’s lingering, increasingly clandestine homophobia is antithetical to making art. It paralyzes expression. Stonewall is product, and it’s defective. If you can’t do justice to history, don’t tell a historical story, and for the love of god, don’t market it as something definitive. I mean, look no further than Stonewall’s title—what a fucking sham.
The increasing reality of same-sex marriage in recent years has caused some to wonder aloud if gay culture is dying out. People seem worried (or in some cases, hopeful) that the relative ease with which we can achieve hetero ideals will rob us of our identity, will make us indistinguishable from the general population. I don’t think having more options is a problem. I believe that as long as there are men who want to have sex with men, and are interested in congregating in large groups to achieve that goal, there will always be gay culture. (If I were an expert in lesbian culture, I’d draw up some parallel. I assume one exists.) What is threatened, though, is gay pop culture, which greed steers away from individual pride and toward the shame of self-conscious normalcy. It’s why Sam Smith thinks it’s “clever” to conceal his gayness in his lyrics, why we don’t have an out A-list actor, why Stonewall is the bland atrocity that it is.
People talk about the advances the gay community has made, and then you see something like Stonewall and you understand that our public face is tantamount to a high school student who’s insecurely trying to pass as “normal.” Those in charge are largely still afraid of gayness, and those of us who are not afraid of ourselves or what plainly incorrect people think about our lives are not served by this regressive tripe. It’s, in fact, nauseating to watch blown up on a screen. Grow the fuck up, Hollywood.
During the movie’s brief rioting scene, I thought, “If only this movie had the balls to throw bricks and squirt lighter fluid at the real target.” If only this movie had a shred of the courage of the “unsung heroes” it leaves ignored.