If you’ve been paying any attention to the conversation surrounding “Stonewall,” the new historical drama from director Roland Emmerich that opens Friday, you’ve probably deduced that early reviewers really, really did not like this movie.
The headlines were quite icy: “Stonewall Is Terribly Offensive, and Offensively Terrible.” “There Aren’t Enough Bricks in the World to Throw at Roland Emmerich’s Appalling Stonewall.” “Roland Emmerich for the All-Time Gay Hall of Shame.” The Post, exercising a measure of restraint and diplomacy, proclaimed that “‘Stonewall,’ about a pivotal point in gay history, misses the mark.”
When the trailer for “Stonewall” was first released, Internet hordes promptly deduced that the film would be bad. It appeared that Emmerich’s movie would white-wash one of the most pivotal moments in gay U.S. history by introducing the fictive corn-fed, Midwestern twink that is Danny Winters to guide us through the unwashed wilderness of Christopher Street.
Because no one had seen the film, the conversation about “Stonewall” wasn’t really an artistic one; it was one about identity politics. But now, after seeing the movie, we can say that identity politics are arguably the least of “Stonewall’s” problems. At the screening this writer attended, there was nervous tittering and audible groaning from critics as if they were enduring a two-hour slog through a game of cinematic cliché Bingo.
The film was literally laughably bad, even when graded on a curve that allows for the typical ways fictive historical dramas based on true events tend to muck things up. It has a 6 percent rating on review-aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes. Here’s why.
In writing about the controversy surrounding the trailer, we deduced that Emmerich, who is gay, had not actually made “Stonewall” for the members of the LGBT community whose story the film was purporting to tell.
Emmerich confirmed this in an interview with Buzzfeed. “You have to understand one thing: I didn’t make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people,” he said. “I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting. He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him.”
From a mathematical perspective, this makes sense; there are simply more potential ticket-buying straight people than there are LGBT ones. From a movie-making perspective, this was not the best decision. “Stonewall’s” narrative gets repeatedly and awkwardly interrupted with unsubtle exposition. For example, as Danny is dancing with Trevor, his boyfriend who introduces him to the world of gay activism, Trevor says, quite earnestly, “I’m a member of the Mattachine Society,” and Danny responds “What’s that?” so that the audience may be gifted with an explanation.
When Trevor and Danny attend a meeting, Emmerich has Trevor point to the stage and say, “That’s Frank Kameny.”
There’s an assumption that “Stonewall’s” audience will make the decision to see the film knowing nothing about the basics of gay history, even after the president has name-checked Stonewall as a pivotal moment in U.S. civil rights struggles.
Can you imagine if, in “Lincoln,” Daniel Day-Lewis knelt down to explain to an oblivious White House intern the basic facts about the Battle of Gettysburg, just in case the audience somehow missed it in history class and was too lazy to look it up? Or if the movie, in a can’t-miss aside, felt the need to shout that Ulysses S. Grant was a Union general?
Rather than illustrating what is happening, Emmerich and screenwriter Jon Rabin Baitz repeatedly rely on Danny’s clueless questioning to do the heavy lifting for the audience, with supporting characters serving as professors in Gay Oppression and Liberation 101.
You might say “Stonewall” falls into something called “checkbox filmmaking.” To wit:
- At least one character will have an inexplicable obsession with Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli. For all of “Stonewall’s” exposition, we come away with little understanding of what made Garland such a beacon of light and hope to so many men. “The Wizard of Oz” absolutely played a huge role in gay iconography, so much so that “friend of Dorothy” was a widely-adapted euphemism for gays (although it’s argued that Dorothy actually refers to writer Dorothy Parker). Even now, a version of Dorothy Gale’s blue gingham dress graces the Stonewall’s front window. But we never get to share the emotional connection that the character Ray feels with Judy.
- A closeted Midwestern high school kid falls for the (closeted and openly homophobic) quarterback of the football team and gets caught performing oral sex on said quarterback, much to the horror of the friends who catch them. It’s as though Danny is actually a composite of “Queer as Folk’s” Justin Taylor and “Glee’s” Kurt Hummel.
- The improbably neat and happy ending, in which Danny’s homemaker mother (who isn’t even allowed to talk to her son on the phone, by decree of her football coach husband) somehow works up the gumption and gathers the money to get herself and her daughter to New York to cheer on Danny as he marches through the city in the gay pride parade.
- Every straight woman is silent, clueless, oppressed or some combination of the three. Despite learning about her boyfriend Joe’s relationship with Danny, the girlfriend of the closeted high school quarterback marries him and gets pregnant.
- Nearly all the older gay men are depicted as venal, humorless predators. “That’s something I kind of observed over the years,” Emmerich told The Post. “That the older you get — and don’t forget this is ’69; I was born in ’55 and I’m turning 60 this year — and I know exactly what’s going on there. It’s kind of the older people get, the more they have to use their power/money/whatever to solicit sex.” Trevor romances Danny only to dump him for some other slightly younger, more naive twink, and he only has one move. Danny actually demurs the advances of Ray, who is Puerto Rican, so Trevor may whisper sweet nothings into his ear as they slow-dance to “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” You could not be any more on the nose if you were a septum ring.
- There’s a straight white savior. The B-plot of “Stonewall” revolves around a missing twink named Justin Blank who turns up dead. Deputy Seymour Pine of the NYPD is the noble, well-meaning detective who keeps ordering raids on the Stonewall Inn because he doesn’t want anyone else to die. Why can’t these queens just understand that?!
Frank Kameny is widely regarded as a gay hero whose activism predated the Stonewall Riots. He was a fierce advocate for gay rights and he lost his job with the Army Map Service in 1957 because he was gay. Four years before the riots, Kameny was one of the people on the front lines picketing the White House and the Pentagon in 1965. He’s credited with coining the “gay is good” aphorism.
We don’t actually see much of Kameny in the film, but his character’s most memorable line comes as he’s explaining why gay people should wear suits so that straight people can see “we’re just like them.” After Danny meets Kameny, he insists that Kameny has everything wrong and that his methods are ineffectual. In Emmerich’s world, Kameny is an accommodationist, and Danny is the revolutionary who’s going to liberate gay America.
“You do your research, but at the end, it will always be arbitrary,” Emmerich said in a phone interview, explaining his process for determining which figures absolutely had to make the film. “It’s always never fully in a way what you wanted to do because there’s a problem with length. You can make a movie like this three or four hours.”
Aside from Danny, the people who appear in “Stonewall” are a parade of one-note, paper-bag characters. Ray is an irrational, hopeless, Puerto Rican prostitute who’s been living on the street since he was 12 and has learned that it’s normal to endure the occasional bloody attack from a trick. Danny is tasked with generously explaining why they can’t be together. “We’re too different!” he tells him.
Cong likes to steal things because life isn’t fair. “I haven’t seen one dream come true on Christopher Street!” he yells at Danny. “Not one!”
The uniformed police officers are bullies and homophobic pigs while Deputy Pine is the lone civilizing force within the department.
Ed Murphy is a scary, murderous, kidnapping pimp and mobster who runs the Stonewall Inn.
The weaknesses of these flimsy characterizations really show with Murphy, the mob guy who’s running a prostitution ring out of Stonewall that’s supposedly supplying J. Edgar Hoover with young men to molest and traumatize. When one, Justin, doesn’t cooperate, he turns up dead. In an effort to get Ray to share whatever he knows about Murphy, Deputy Pine shows Ray pictures of Justin’s corpse. Their shock value calls to mind the disfigured body of Emmett Till and the message is clear: Ed Murphy is responsible for this.
The lack of depth or nuance in Murphy’s character becomes a huge liability at the end of the movie, when the credits inform us that the real-life, heterosexual Murphy changed and became a celebrated champion of gay rights, so much so that he was made an honorary grand marshall of the pride parade. There’s no evidence of complexity or humanity in Murphy’s character in the movie, however, and the end note becomes confounding because it unintentionally paints the people who decided to honor Murphy as dolts aggrandizing their oppressors.
Perhaps a better title for this movie would have been “Danny Winters: Gay Columbian.” “Stonewall” spends a good amount of time in flashbacks sorting through Danny’s life in Indiana, which has little to do with his life on Christopher Street, aside from the fact that Danny ends up there because his football coach father kicked him out three months before the riots began because Danny was gay. The narrative through-line has nothing to do with Stonewall but revolves around whether Danny will be able to attend Columbia. He has to take night classes to finish his high school education. There’s suspense about whether one of his parents will sign his scholarship paperwork and send it to the school; otherwise, he can’t enroll. Danny basically dabbles in a gauntlet of homelessness, police harassment, prostitution (narrowly escaping being raped by a figure who is surely meant to be J. Edgar Hoover in drag) and violent gay activism before settling comfortably into his dorm room so he can study astronomy.
In spite of everything, Emmerich “Stonewall” accomplished his mission.
“I’m actually quite happy and proud of the film,” he told The Post.