At one point during Roland Emmerich's embarrassingly misguided take on the Stonewall Riots, invented character Danny (plush blond Brit Jeremy Irvine, whose accent emerges even more often than homophobic violence in the film) exclaims that he's so angry he just wants to break something.
So did I, not long after one the movie's earliest, most excruciating scenes, in which aw-shucks Indianan Danny, who we soon learn has been cast out of his idyllic Midwest home for being a damn dirty queer, is slobbered over by a drag queen who won't take no fucking way for an answer. The reason for my disgust was not that the character (overplayed to the hilt to Richard Jutras) was a clichĂ©, so much as it was that the scene was constructed to make the audience cringe. Danny's excuse for being uncomfortable is that he's had zero exposure to any homosexuals other than the strapping fellow closet-case back home (played by a Marlon Brando-channeling Karl Glusman) with whom he is in love, but what is the filmmakers' excuse?
Why does a film so earnestly about LGBT rights that it ends with a mini history lesson on the subject spend so much time seeming to grimace at the LGBT characters who aren't pretty enough?
Stonewall has been a lightning rod for political criticism ever since the release of its trailer, in which it became clear that Emmerich and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz were presenting the instigator of the riots as beinga made-up white boy. (By the way, the scene is even more explicitly a white-savior moment, with Danny not only throwing the first brick, but having to shout about gay power to the crowd to get them to go along with him.)
But while other critics have written persuasively of just how ballsy the film's white-savior gambit is, and just how tone-deaf, I think even if one is unwilling to accept any line of argument on the topic of racial or gender inequality in filmâ€”you know who you areâ€”it is almost unimaginable that any critical viewer would not find the message of Stonewall confusing at best, retrograde at worst.
In fact, the film's chief failure is not as a piece of history or as a politically empowering fable, but as an interesting, well-acted, credible entertainment.
Emmerich has outrageously admitted he went with a white, straight-acting gay male character as the focus in order to broaden the film's appeal, as if he were directing yet another movie with action-figure potential. Still, what about Baitz's laughably broad, schmaltzfest of a script spoke to him? Why is their concession to mass appeal such a hackneyed stock character with a storyline we've seen before and can predict in its entirety from the moment we meet him?
Most of the film centers on Danny as a fish-out-of-water, a high school jock forced to fend for himself in Greenwich Village after his coach dad kicks him out of the house. He quickly falls in with a group of rag-tag street kids and gender-fluid hustlers who have plenty of bark and bite, and who haze him a bit before accepting him as one of their own. Led by resilient Ray (an impressive Jonny Beauchamp) and razor-sharp Cong (Vladimir Alexis, who owns the film's only believably, organically and inspirationally flamboyant performance), the group shows Danny the ropes, but can't save him from being brutally beaten up by homophobic cops.
Danny is gorgeous, so he also dabbles in sex work, which is presented as something that is necessarily devastating. Wouldn't it have been more interesting to have seen, as was common at the time, a young man selling temporary access to his body without guilt, without having to turn his head and cry while being (GASP) blown, maybe even with some satisfaction, some sense of shrugging off society's constraints?
But sex-positivity does not play in Emmerich's hopelessly square Stonewall, in which one trick plays out after Danny is forced into a car and sold to a rich guy in the most aggressively grotesque drag forces himself on the kid.
I couldn't get over how moralizing this film was about sexuality and sexual expression. The married men furtively paying for after-work BJs were LGBT people, too, trying to get by as best they could. Certainly, they were not all the monsters Emmerich and Baitz have cooked up.
This bizarre treatment of gay sex was also reflected in one of the film's most annoying ticsâ€”everywhere Danny goes in Manhattan, the extras have all been instructed to turn and leer at him in his wake. Like vintage homo-bashing movies of a bygone era, Stonewall simultaneously groans at how horrible some things are (nearly being raped by bloodthirsty cops, for example) and licks its lips as it seems to fetishize the acts it is ostensibly condemning.
Is this movie about 1969, or was it made in 1969?
Expecting the unexpected from a movie in which femme Ray has to be told point-blank by Danny the he could never fall for him was probably a folly on my part.
As for the film's grasp of history, the few real-life figures get drastically different treatment. The heroic Marsha P. Johnsonâ€”played stiffly, amateurishly by Otoja Abitâ€”is barely seen until some go-girl moments at the end, while Deputy Seymour Pine (Matt Craven, whose professionalism distinguishes him here), who led the raid that precipitated the first outbreak of violence, is presented as a great guy who was just trying to clean up police corruption and arrest the bar's beastly mobster owner (Ron Perlman). Oddly, though we are shown an unnecessarily violent raid by cops early in the film, the narrative goes on to present the actual rioting as misplaced, nearly homicidal anger. There is no sense of desperation, and there is no sense of liberation. It just ... happens.
Another aspect of history that the film mucks up is its eye-rolling dismissal of Frank Kameny and The Mattachine Society, especially as represented by oily Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), whose disapproval of violence the film frames as being timidity and an inability to stand up and be counted. Yet Kameny (played perfunctorily by Arthur Holden) is later lionized in the film's closing credits. Which is it? Were the pre-Stonewall, suit-and-tie activists useful or useless? Emmerich dithers on this, and winds up with a long, turgid movie about not much of anything beyond a cute boy's triumph, via night school, over his parents' rejection.
Emmerich is a very successful director. He has mostly helmed crappy escapist fare, each film worse than the last (Universal Soldier, Godzilla, The Patriot, The Day After Tomorrow, the Independence Day series), but I'm not exactly curing cancer with my time on earth so he is the type of artist about whom I generally say, â€śMore power to him.â€ť Yet his Stonewall provides a dropped-jaw example of how harmlessness can become harmful, and reserves of power can be exploited inexpertly.
Do I think Emmerich and Baitz are racist or classist or transphobic? Nope. (Though Emmerich has said some wow-inducing shit, like how he thinks this is the year of black transgender women. They get a whole year.) I think they're probably wonderful people.
But it's truly shocking to me that well-intentioned individuals inarguably on our side can, with enough of our goodwill and enough of their clout, bring to fruition a film meant to uplift that instead disenfranchises, a film meant to entertain that instead entertains its creators specific turn-ons and turn-offs, a film meant to chronicle an important moment in LGBT history that instead accidentally reduces that moment to an excuse to see Jeremy Irvine in his underpants.
I hope that this film's inevitable failure will not inhibit Hollywood from trying again soon. Stonewall would make an excellent miniseries. It would also make an excellent movie, as long as it's not one directed by this person, or from this script.
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Pairing the It Guy Alex Mecum (above) with a beefier-looking Addison Graham (below left) strikes me, at first blush, as kinda brilliant.
Both have dark hair, both are muscular, and both are light skinned. Then,Â Alex’s fur coating versus Addison’s super-smooth skin offers a terrific visual contrast.About the only thing that didn’t work in the photographs here was the lighting; it shone too brightly on these fair skinned guys. For your enjoyment, though, I bumped up the contrast in most of them. The result is a perfect match.