When the first trailer for Stonewall hit the Internet, the blowback across the Internet was intense. The criticisms lobbed at the film focused on the seeming lack of representation of lesbians, drag queens and people of color in the trailer, and was compounded by a scene which appeared to show Danny (Jeremy Irvine), the hunky gay white lead, throw the first brick through the Stonewall Inn, technically starting the Stonewall Riots.
As it turns out, the full scene that plays out in Stonewall is far more problematic than the trailer indicated.
First off: yes, in the film, Danny throws the first brick through the Stonewall Inn, after it’s handed to him by Cong (Vlad Alexis), one member of a group that’s taken Danny under their wing. Let’s look at the optics of this: Cong is black and, at the very least, gender-nonconforming, and his contribution is handing the brick to the white, gay, gender-conforming man. Considering these characters are fictional, it just looks bad. But it gets worse. While there’s no definitive answer as to which specific person instigated the riots, the person who is widely considered the instigator is Sylvia P. Johnson, a trans woman of color. The film actually includes Johnson as a character (played by Otoja Abit), and specifically makes a point to get the character away from the Stonewall Inn just before Danny throws the brick.
What’s more, the proverbial straw that breaks the otherwise passive Danny isn’t the presence of the police. It’s not the riotous attitudes of his friends, who are enraged by the NYPD’s policy of jailing that heavily leaned on the bar’s trans, drag queen, non-white clientele. It’s not even the escape of the Stonewall’s manager, Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman), who was arrested by the police in the sting and handcuffed to Johnson. No: what pushes Danny over the edge is seeing Trevor (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), the ex-boyfriend who Danny just caught hours earlier in an affair, and hearing him suggest that they calm down.
Let’s make this clear: what shakes Danny out of his passiveness isn’t the mistreatment of the members of the community who have had his back since he arrived in New York City. It’s because he wants to spite his conformist ex.
The beginning of the riot is far from Stonewall‘s only issue, but it’s the most glaring one. Director Roland Emmerich and writer Jon Robin Baitz are both gay white men, and in Stonewall, they have crafted a version of events that puts gay white men at the forefront of what’s considered the pivotal moment in the gay rights movement. As a gay white man with knowledge of my community’s history, I know that the truth is more complex than what Stonewall as a film would ever represent, just given the form in which the story’s being told. But this isn’t just simplification. It is a bald-faced rewriting of history that will undoubtedly be viewed by people without a knowledge of LGBT history as being historically accurate on some level. This isn’t a problem that’s new to film, of course, but that doesn’t make this egregious error any more palpable.
Of course, the film’s issues start much earlier on. Let’s start with the film’s central character, Danny. He’s a fictional character who’s meant to be an entry point for audiences. Danny comes from Indiana, where he was kicked out of his home by his father, the high school football coach, after Danny was caught fooling around with the quarterback. He’s traveled to New York because he’s already planned on entering Columbia University in the fall, so he’s just arriving early. The argument to be made for Danny’s creation, and his representation by an actor like Irvine, is that by presenting this gay man with wholesome, boyish good looks and a body that would be best described in gay lingo as “twunk,” he’s more palpable for audiences who are unfamiliar with parts of the LGBT community that live on the fringes. In fact, this is the argument that Emmerich has presented for Danny’s existence. This stance comes with its own loaded set of questions, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a form of entertainment has done something like this (see: Orange is the New Black and Piper Chapman). It’s not enough to justify placing Danny at the center of this film, though. Danny may be the marketable character. He’s definitely not the film’s most interesting character, or the one whose backstory is the most compelling.
The film does actually have a character who would be worth exploring as the lead of this type of story. The first person in New York to provide Danny with care is Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), who also goes by Ramona. Ray is an effeminate Puerto Rican hustler who’s survived for years on the streets of New York, often by hustling, with dreams of making it off the streets and starting a family that seem tragically doomed. Thanks in part to Beauchamp’s strong performance, Ray is the only character of note with the charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent to serve as a solid film protagonist. As much presence as Ray has, though, he is at best a secondary lead, and really just a supporting figure for Danny. Because of course the film has to fall back on a cliché, Ray falls for Danny, and Danny has to tell Ray he loves Ray as a friend. There’s no romantic or sexual interest on Danny’s part.
Speaking of gay sex, the film more often than not treats it as shameful. Ray’s group of friends is made up of young hustlers of various ethnicities and gender identities, and they’re regularly shown walking or driving away with older men. While he comes to the city with money, Danny eventually runs out, and his friends let him know that one of their clients is interested in paying him to receive a blowjob. What results is Danny providing the camera with what might be the single most awkward facial reception of a blowjob in cinematic history. And that’s outdone later, when after breaking up with Trevor, Danny is kidnapped at the direction of Ed Murphy to be pimped out to an older man in drag, who also wants to blow Danny. (Because Danny’s the type of pretty boy that everyone wants, based on how people interact with him.) In another scene, after wandering into an area where a lot of men are having sex in the shadows that is discovered by the police, Danny is brutally beaten by the officers after refusing to perform oral sex on them. Hell, even the incident that ends up getting Danny kicked out of his home shows the quarterback that Danny pines for pushing for sex, with Danny being hesitant. I’m not saying that the film should have shown Danny as the all-too-eager center of a mass orgy at the center of the Stonewall Inn, but seriously. The only scene we can assume he enjoyed that’s shown is Danny’s first time sleeping with Trevor, which is shown in shadows for all of 15 seconds.
Trevor, coincidentally, provides for one of the more tone-deaf elements of the script. Trevor is a part of the Mattacine Society, an organization that promoted the idea of equality through assimilation. Trevor, as well as a handful of other members of the group, repeatedly urge that conformity is what gays need, because if the broader society feels at ease, they’ll be more accepting. Trevor’s interest in Danny is partially fueled by a self-serving white savior complex, as he believes Danny is better than Ray and his friends. The film appears to condemn this line of thinking, all while promoting Danny as the lead in the interest of appealing to a broader audience because if the broader society feels at ease, they’ll be more accepting. So basically, as much as Emmerich and Baitz may want Danny to represent themselves, both of them are really Trevor.
And then there’s the matter of the riots. You know, the event that gives the film its name? The riots are depicted for maybe five to eight minutes, at most. Just one night. The actual days-long riot that took place seems like it should be the area where Emmerich’s directing credits would come in most handy. This is, after all, the director of Independence Day, with its classic shot of the White House being destroyed. Disaster films are Emmerich’s bread and butter. The fucking riots are where Emmerich could have shown the visceral rage of this community. But no. After spending most of the film dealing with Danny’s issues, the film chooses to get through the riots quickly, then move on to the film’s conclusion a year later.
There are so many issues with this film, that I don’t think it could be fixed without just scrapping the entire project and starting from scratch. There are certainly more than what I’ve written about here. But to conclude this review, I want to come back to the title, and how the film’s being promoted. It’s called Stonewall, which is culturally synonymous with the Stonewall Riots. The tagline, which is more prominent than the title on the film’s poster (at right), states “Where Pride Began.” Ultimately, though, Stonewall is really a film about gay youth surviving on the streets, merely using the Stonewall Riots as a backdrop. The story could easily be transposed to another period of time and shed the historical significance, and the bulk of the film could then survive minor cosmetic changes. But by placing this story specifically in this time and location, the film also takes on the responsibility of properly conveying the historical significance and baggage of the Stonewall Riots. It doesn’t, and yet it’s willing to invoke the Stonewall Riots in the film’s naming and promotion. That is indefensible.