‘Stonewall’ Hides Behind Dramatic Stereotypes

Roland Emmerich, over the course of his illustrious filmmaking career, has attempted to write disaster fantasy on the largest canvas possible.

Sep 23, 2015 at 10:43 am
click to enlarge 'Stonewall'

Roland Emmerich, over the course of his illustrious filmmaking career, has attempted to write disaster fantasy on the largest canvas possible. He has stood at the helm when American landmarks and monuments have fallen at the hands of aliens (Independence Day), giant lizards (Godzilla), natural disasters (The Day After Tomorrow and 2012) and terrorist attacks (White House Down), but he has also questioned historic record — see Anonymous, which delves into the literary mystery of William Shakespeare’s identity. And now it could be argued that he’s going smaller in some ways with Stonewall, his take on the events leading up to the Stonewall Riots, the tipping point for the political and cultural rise of the modern-day LGBTQ community.

Emmerich has chosen a fictional character as the entry point to his story — Danny (Jeremy Irvine), an all-American boy from Indiana, a would-be football player intent on trying to please his football coach/father (David Cubitt). Papa Coach is an old-school father figure, the quiet man of few words and righteous principles, more than willing to sacrifice his son to stand by his narrow beliefs. Danny, of course, finds himself making eyes at his best friend, the captain and quarterback of the football team, and is completely ostracized after being caught making out in the front seat of a car. This wide-eyed innocent heads off, earlier than anticipated, to the Big Apple, where he was already planning to attend Columbia University.

Within moments, the movie-star handsome kid attracts the attention of every queen on Christopher Street, but it is Ray/Ramona (Jonny Beauchamp) who takes Danny under his wing. Ray leads a ragtag gang of street hustlers that look like a scruffy chorus line from an off-Broadway production, wearing their flamboyant dramatics like so much mascara and second-hand castoffs. There’s as much diversity as there are stereotypes, which means all characterizations are barely skin-deep and sadly, quite troubling.

The script, by Jon Robin Baitz, references the idea that Danny is the only dreamer on Christopher Street with a chance to achieve his goals because he has options. He’s not merely one of the homeless kids drifting along — we learn through the scroll at the end of the film that 40 percent of all homeless teens identify themselves as LGBTQ. Although Danny suffers an early beating at the hands of cops prowling the scene and we catch glimpses of him being serviced for money, Danny, more often than not, receives kindness and support thanks to his pretty-boy features and white all-American face.

The greatest affront, though, is the notion that once the powder keg has been set, it takes Danny’s act of rebellion to light the fuse. A crazy night of adventure culminates with Danny standing in front of the Stonewall Inn, snatching a brick from the hands of a member of Ray’s crew and launching the brick and the movement. I found myself checking out of the narrative at this point, wondering why it had to be Danny. This decision felt like a typical white male fantasy, built upon the belief that nothing meaningful in history happens unless inspired by or through the efforts of (straight) white men.

Does this mean that folks willing to see a film like Stonewall could only appreciate the subject matter if seen through the reflection of someone who looks like them? Is Stonewall, then, only for white male audiences?

To be critically fair, the narrative doesn’t even treat Danny’s story as honorably as it should. We hear of his struggles to get his parents to send paperwork so that he can secure financial aid and we see him attend a random night class that will allow him to get the necessary finishing credits for his transcripts, but we never see enough examples of his hard work and dedication. The shorthand approach only reinforces that things come easily for Danny.

But what about the truly invisible faces of the LGBTQ community? The drag queens who get mentioned more in the final credits than they are featured in the narrative? The lesbian mothers and wives who secretly set up rendezvous along Christopher Street in the bars, the only places they could truly be themselves? Stonewall erects a wall, blocking them from view, when it purports to be about blowing up such barriers. (Opens wide Friday) (R) Grade: C-