When word began to spread that director Roland Emmerich—the destruction junkie behind Independence Day, Godzilla (1998), The Day After Tomorrow and 2012—had made an offensively revisionist mockery of the Stonewall riots in a movie that is supposedly dedicated to their legacy, the punning headlines practically wrote themselves. Although it’s tempting to call Stonewall yet another “Emmerich disaster,” that’s incorrect because of the implication that its failure was accidental, that this crisis could have been averted.
No, everything about this crime against history and cinema was loaded with nefarious intent, from the whitewashing of documented events to softening the sharply radical edge of the event’s politics, to the demonization of any sexual act that is not based in monogamy between two conventionally handsome white cisgender men. Every nonconforming character and person of color is essentialized from the get-go, confined to either quirky supporting roles or tragic figures in need of saving from a golden white “straight-acting” (in Emmerich’s own words) messiah figure. Real people are robbed of their contributions in order to create a fictionalized poster child rooted in respectability politics rather than historical fact. These are not the hallmarks of a disaster. This has intent; this is an atrocity.
The fictional golden boy in question is Danny Winters, a Columbia pre-freshman from Indiana who leaves home sooner than expected after his relationship with his football teammate is exposed. Early on is a silly but telling signifier of Emmerich’s lack of trust in the audience: Danny’s father, incidentally, is the coach, whom everyone refers to as Coach, and he even wears a baseball cap with the word COACH. Danny arrives in New York City several months before the riots, but is forced to live on the street due to his parents’ refusal to sign and mail his scholarship forms. Over the next few months, Danny becomes acquainted with the world of Christopher Street and the many faces and factions of the increasingly confident and public LGBTQ community.
Apologies if that description made the story sound at all engaging. At 129 minutes, approximately 10 are devoted to the namesake riots (which are erroneously shown as happening on only one night) and the rest is Danny’s sanitized and depressingly sex-negative struggle in what feels like Emmerich’s attempt to steer the community’s behavior closer to his. The dialogue is utter shite, the action is stagy and the canned set pieces feel as artificial as the nonmusical portions of Rent. Some of the performances are decent, given the material they had to work with; that Danny is used as a co-option and not a character is not Jeremy Irvine’s fault, and that newcomer Jonny Beauchamp’s turn as lead street kid Ray/Ramona manages to be engaging at all is a promising sign for his future career.
Stonewall’s soullessness is rooted in its desire to avoid any celebration of the rebellious spirit and message of the event, which is why it concocted an unnecessary and mawkish narrative about a Midwestern boy, which goes on to take over the entire movie until there’s no more room for why it existed in the first place. For that reason, asking what it should have done differently is like asking what a burglar who got caught should have done to get away with it. But even if the story had avoided the riot altogether or been more factually accurate, it still would be a technically sloppy, unengaging and ethically troubling film.
Playing this week
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX