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Nailing the Riots, But Not Their Meaning

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Director Roland Emmerich is most sure-footed when things get explosive. | PHILIPPE BOSSÉ/ ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS
Director Roland Emmerich is most sure-footed when things get explosive. | PHILIPPE BOSSÉ/ ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS

Generally, trailers are intended to promote films and get people excited about them. The release of the trailer for Roland Emmerich’s “Stonewall” had the exact opposite effect. It depicted the milieu around the Stonewall Inn in the late ‘60s as 90 percent white, with few visible drag queens. The release of a cast list, featuring mostly white actors, didn’t help. Calls for protest and even a boycott followed.

It’s interesting that “Stonewall” is the first film made within our community –– at least to the extent that director Emmerich and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz are openly gay –– to generate such a response. “Cruising,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” and “Basic Instinct” drew similar protests, but they were greeted as insults from outsiders. This time, the outcry is about how a privileged white gay man depicts people of color –– or leaves them off-screen, as the case may be.

High school senior Danny (Jeremy Irvine), a white fictional character, lives in a small Midwestern town and keeps his gayness a secret, but gets caught having sex with another boy in a car. His homophobic father throws him out of the house. He takes a bus to New York, where he heads to Sheridan Square. He meets a group of street hustlers led by Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), who hang out on Christopher Street and occasionally turn tricks. Danny wants to go to Columbia, but his parents are blocking his application from going through. On his first trip to the Stonewall Inn, he meets a cute guy, Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and becomes attracted to him, but he learns about the ugly side of gay life when the bar is raided by the cops.

Roland Emmerich struggles to capture LGBT life on the margins at the time of Stonewall

Most of the time, it seems as though Emmerich learned about New York bohemia from seeing “Rent.” One thing the film gets right is the way that many gay men, especially those who’ve been rejected by their birth families, form networks of friends and rely on them for support. Ray allows Danny to share whatever impromptu accommodations he has, and he does the same for all his many friends. The problem is that “Stonewall” can’t help making poverty and homelessness look photogenic and turn sex work into another obstacle to be overcome on its hero’s journey. I got the impression Emmerich has no first-hand experience with the lower depths he’s depicting.

Jonny Beauchamp as Ray, a street kid, in Roland Emmerich’s “Stonewall.” | PHILIPPE BOSSÉ/ ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS
Jonny Beauchamp as Ray, a street kid, in Roland Emmerich’s “Stonewall.” | PHILIPPE BOSSÉ/ ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS

The charges of whitewashing are somewhat justified, although the complaint that “Stonewall” presents a world of butch white gay men is not. There are a number of black men and trans women in the film, but for the most part they’re relegated to the background. Even future activist Marsha P. Johnson gets relatively little screen time. Ray seems intended to be Latino, but this is never made explicit in the film. The film does succeed in presenting a vision of a time where gender identity was a lot more fluid than it is now among gay men. In the world of “Stonewall,” gay, drag, and trans are overlapping identities. In 2015, this seems rather refreshing.

Roland Emmerich’s strengths as a director are extremely limited. To be blunt, he seems best when he can depict explosions and destruction. He’s tried sneaking in liberal politics among the apocalyptic visions, as in “The Day After Tomorrow,” but there’s something a bit contradictory about expressing an environmentalist message through a catastrophe the film obviously revels in.

“Stonewall” is the kind of film that’s almost never been made: a Hollywood epic about the gay rights movement. Gus van Sant’s “Milk” is the only parallel that comes to mind, and I suspect van Sant would have done a better job of directing “Stonewall.” The Stonewall riots are genuinely stirring, as they play to Emmerich’s interests and he directs the action well, but the scenes in Middle America are corny sub-Spielberg stuff.

The significance of the Stonewall riots may not have been the uprisings themselves –– they weren’t the first protests at gay bar busts in the late ‘60s –– but the wave of political activism that happened afterwards, as the relatively polite Mattachine Society (unflatteringly depicted in “Stonewall”) was left in the dust and more radical groups like the Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance, and S.T.A.R. formed. “Stonewall” botches this moment and winds up almost depoliticizing the riots. In the end, it suggests their main significance was leading to Pride parades around the world. That’s true, but it’s a small part of a much bigger cause.

Emmerich says he was inspired to make “Stonewall” by learning that 40 percent of homeless teens are LGBT. His heart’s in the right place, but the director of “Independence Day” is perhaps not the best person to capture the gritty and multi-racial reality of street life, then or now.

STONEWALL | Directed by Roland Emmerich | Roadside Attractions | Opens Sep. 25 | Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston at Mercer St.; angelikafilmcenter.com/nyc | Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas, 260 W. 23rd St.; bowtiecinemas.com | AMC Lincoln Square 13, 1998 Broadway at W. 68th St.; amctheatres.com

Read Duncan Osborne's interview with director Roland Emmerich here.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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Reader feedback

David Ehrenstein says:
Steve, the scene in and around Stonewall WAS mostly white. That's a FACT that gaggle of pissy queens who weren't so much as a bulge in their daddy's pants when Stonewall took place are making. A ex-post-facto takeover bid is being made by self-appointed trans representatives are out to distort history in their favor. No single individual "started" the riot. Masha P. Johnson (quite a character) who I knew did not call herself trans. She was a "transvestite" and referred to herself as such. Transitioning was wildly expensive in those days and only a select well-financed few did it. Would Marsha have 'had the operation" (as it was called back then)? Maybe, maybe not. In any event she was what she was, not what these DAMNED KIDS !!!!!! want to turn her into.
Sept. 19, 2015, 5:25 pm
VINNY says:
AM I LOSING MY MIND? I JUST READ ED SIKOV'S PIECE "HERE" ON THIS [ON MY IPHONE] AND NOW CAN'T FIND IT THERE NOR HERE. IN IT, I THINK HE WRITES THAT WHITES ARE "AGAINST" BLACKS ON THIS. BUT STEVE GIVES ME THE IMPRESSION IT'S THE OTHER WAY AROUND. MAYBE I'M TOO PRACTICAL OR RATIONAL.
Sept. 21, 2015, 1:14 am
nathan riley says:
It is my understanding that while the bar had many white customers, it was the hookers, drag queens and street people who got rowdy and threw garbage pails and stood up to the police. They were the ones with the strongest complaints and suffered the most harassment. And of equal importance, the closet didn't exist for them. The police had labeled them pervs and fags so often that didn't suffer inhibition and a desire to retreat into the closet. Many of them were proudly and defiantly gay before Stonewall. Their energy was critical to starting the demonstration but many white people joined in creating the spectacle that riveted the City and made the "riots" continue. It was the repeat performance that created the movement. But as historians often note similar explosive defiance occurred in many places in the United States. The strategy of coming out had been developed and widely discussed before Stonewall and the argument in favor gay liberation had eloquent exponents, but they were too buttoned down to use rhetoric like "liberation." I suspect Emmerich wanted a sanitized legend for a mass market. After all this movie will play in Peoria. Criticizing the movie is important but recognizing that the sub-culture of drugs,, and sex workers that provided the energy is the real lesson of Stonewall. Color was only part of the explanation.
Sept. 23, 2015, 8:14 pm
nathan riley says:
I just saw Stonewall, and it is much much better than the advanced word of mouth. The movie is uncompromising in this basic truth - the whores started it. The street kids come in all colors including white with a suit, and their stroll in the heart of Sheridan Sq is the setting for the movie. Their moral solidarity animates this setting and they offer the young hoosier a place to stay and embrace him on his first day in this strange land called Greenwich Village. The "tribe" they formed is a real community that should be respected. They rescue our hero from a famous Greenwich Village mobster. It is only years later that Ed Skull Murphy emerged as the leader of the parade and a gay rights activist. This movie shows how little has changed for homeless kids.
Sept. 26, 2015, 12:46 am

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