6.5 out of 10
Jeremy Irvine as Danny Winters
Directed by Roland Emmerich
In 1969, Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine) arrives on Christopher Street, hoping to attend Columbia University after being kicked out of his home in a small Midwest town, but he finds himself homeless as he’s taken in by the denizens of the West Village—transvestites and street hustlers who turn tricks to make money and whom hang out at the Stonewall Inn which is frequently raided by the authorities.
Maybe I’m not the right person to review Stonewall because I’m neither gay nor have I ever been persecuted for my sexuality like the gay men and women of the ‘60s who literally weren’t allowed to be hired for jobs or even be served liquor and were constantly dealing with homophobic hatred from everyone, including the police.
It’s what drove many young homeless men to Christopher Street in the West Village where they’d turn tricks (mostly with closeted men) to make money, and it’s here where Justin Irvine’s Danny Winters finds himself in the late ‘60s in Roland Emmerich’s attempt to make the Stonewall riots available to the masses.
The film starts as a typical fish out of water story of the fresh-faced, good-looking man from the Midwest arriving in New York and trying to adjust to such a place where everyone is openly gay. There he meets Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), a Puerto Rican transvestite street hustler who becomes enamored with the smalltown boy, taking him under his wing to help him acclimate to his new life in this foreign setting.
Granted, Roland Emmerich might not seem like the best filmmaker to explore this sort of story, but Stonewall isn’t just about the riots that led to the first progress into getting gay rights, as much as it is trying to tell a personal story about a young man being thrust into that environment. Danny Winters is meant to represent the viewer, although he’s isn’t the most interesting character to have as the lead, which may be why Stonewall takes a long time to even come close to winning anyone over. This is especially true when it cuts back to Danny’s home life in the Midwest where he falls for a childhood friend, the high school football star Joe, which gets him ostracized by the community and kicked out of his house as he discovers his true sexuality.
As it happens, Beauchamp ends up being far more interesting a character, especially when it comes to his unrequited romantic interest in Danny who instead hooks up with Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Trevor, who is very active in the fight for gay rights. At the same time, Emmerich tries to develop a story around the police, who are frequently raiding the Stonewall Inn due to its ties to the mob, and its owner Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman), who may be responsible for a number of deaths of the young gay men that frequent his bar.
Trevor’s introduction about an hour into the movie is the first time since the intro where there’s any clue the movie is going to deal with protests by the gay community about their treatment, as it instead focuses on Danny adjusting to life in New York. When it starts dealing with the reason to see the movie, the lead-up to the Stonewall riots, that’s when the movie starts feeling more worthwhile, but it was just as important for Emmerich to establish the characters before the bricks start flying.
There’s been a lot of babble about the movie being “whitewashed” but nothing could be further from the truth as the cast is extremely diverse and the characters represent a wide range of gay men, from the flamboyant transvestites to the more repressed and closeted individuals. But it also ably explores the idea of being homosexual due to emotional feelings towards the same sex vs. physical lust, which is not something that has been covered in many better movies like Milk.
But there are other, far more bothersome things, like the older queen who preys on Danny when he first arrives on Christopher Street. While it may be an accurate portrayal of the times, it’s also the type of stereotype that taps into the homophobic fears of the time (that still exist today!) which led to laws to keep the gay community down. And that character appears in the first five minutes of the movie! There are quite a few other predators in the movie, including an absolutely horrifying 300-lb crossdresser who “hires” Danny, and it doesn’t seem necessary to get the point across that young gay men had to contend with being preyed upon.
Even worse are the moments in Stonewall when it feels like it might break into a musical because so much of the storytelling is more like something we’re likely to see on Broadway, almost as if screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz (a Broadway playwright) was trying way too hard to add enough stuff to make the movie more fun and interesting towards a wider audience.
Those problems aside, it’s a fairly daring move for a gay filmmaker who has never had an openly gay, lesbian or trans character in any of his Hollywood movies, and maybe it’s not a coincidence that Emmerich went right from Stonewall into making a sequel to his biggest hit Independence Day just to prove Stonewall as being an anomaly within his body of work.
The Bottom Line:
Stonewall isn’t a perfect movie by any means and feelings towards it will probably will vary depending on your own connection to the subject, but the good intentions are there even if it’s only slightly about the protest for gay rights the word “Stonewall” has become synonymous with.
Stonewall opens in select cities on Friday, September 25.