ed’s note: I’m going to spoil the shit out of this motherfucker because fuck this movie…
Greetings, salutations, bonjour and hello. Ladies, gentlemen, and everybody in between, I welcome you to our celebration of the 20th anniversary of an event we all remember. Or, at least an event that we would remember if we were old enough to witness it the first time. Of course, I’m talking about Stonewall. No, not the Stonewall Riots, those happened 46 years ago and are celebrated in June. I’m talking about the movie Stonewall, the British movie that fictionalized the Stonewall Riots on their 26th anniversary; ’twas a far more important event than the Riots could ever hope to be.
20 years ago, in the deep dark days of 1995, the BBC released Stonewall, a fictionalization that centered around a Latino drag queen, a corn-fed just-off-the-bus white boy, and his whitebread Mattachine Society lover. Nigel Finch, who died while making the movie, and Rikki Beadle-Blair created fictional characters to move in and around the various sections of pre-Stonewall gay culture. Their film was ostensibly told by a Latino drag queen, but we all know that she was really just a pawn in Beadle-Blair’s insidious radicalization of an event launched by a white kid with everything to lose. Or, better yet, the studios forced Finch to focus on a minority genderqueer type person so as to appease those uppity radicals (you know how they can get, am I right?).
Well, NO MORE! Today, on the 20th anniversary of the film, Roland Emmerich releases his honorary remake of Stonewall, focusing on the true hero of the film: that middle American white boy who just arrived to New York City. Gone is his romance with the Latino drag queen, because we all know that he could never do that (he tells us so, himself). Gone is Fire Island, because that place never ever mattered to New York gays. Instead, Emmerich and writer Jon Robin Baitz (of the severely overrated U.S. miniseries The Slap) want to focus all of their attention to the plight of queer homeless youth and the trials they face, including getting paid $25 to get a blowjob from old men.
But, let’s be clear, Stonewall isn’t just about gay culture. Instead, it’s also about the war at home. Roland Emmerich and Jon Robin Baitz aren’t just here to honor a 20 year old movie by remaking it. They’re here to simultaneously scold and entertain white middle America. They also seem intent on correcting a couple of records, but in doing so they still manage to get a few facts wrong…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
In the tradition of the original movie, Emmerich opens with an info dump of the pre-Stonewall era. He gives us a glimpse of the riots to come (much) later in the film while typing factoids about Electroshock Therapy and not being able to serve drinks to homosexuals. For the minute or two that he’s doing this, I realize this could work really well as a powerful short film. Alas, we’re whisked away to see James Irvine, one of the whitest twunks you could meet (this boy played Pip in Great Expectations for crying out loud), riding the bus on his way to
Sesame Christopher Street. Just off the bus, Danny (that’s the character’s name) wanders through the seemingly 2-square-block neighborhood, to be hit on by an ugly old queen offering him a 3rd hot dog for dinner, if you know what I mean…and if you don’t, he’s even less subtle about it. Fortunately, Danny is magically saved by Ray, a Latino femmy street hustler (not drag queen, not transexual…just a femme) who falls in unrequited love with Danny as the white boy of his dreams.
The following 10 minutes draw a portrait of Christopher St and its characters, including a bunch of unimportant side characters who would go on to be important activists in the end title cards. Marsha P. Johnson, future co-founder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and organizer within ACT UP, introduces herself, then flitters away to the background. There’s also a guy who stores the luggage of the street hustlers. I forget his name, and I’m not sure if we were ever properly introduced. I remember that his lover’s name was Terry, but not who that guy was. He’s supposed to be an activist, who loved the street hustlers. Two activists form a bunch, right? *sigh*
Besides these characters, Ray introduces Danny to his multi-cultural gang of street hustlers, the black one of which throws a brick through a nearby store just to steal a hat. Not. Even. Kidding. Anyways, once we’re done with that, we’re shown the meat packing district, where hustlers would turn tricks, and gay men would gather to boink each other in the back of trucks. That, my friends, is the extent of gay life in Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall. Well, that and sleeping 12 to a room in hotels, and occasionally going to the Stonewall Inn (which doesn’t even happen for 40 fucking minutes).
Instead of taking us through the ins and outs of gay life, Emmerich and Baitz choose to focus on Danny’s backstory. What was hardly a blip in the original Stonewall is now suddenly the focus of the entire first act. This story is so milquetoast it might as well have been an after school special. Everybody thinks Danny could be queer, but it’s not until he’s caught blowing the star quarterback behind the barn that he’s kicked out of his house. So, that’s how Danny came to be homeless. It took 20+ minutes over the course of 3 separate flashbacks to tell this tale. The movie Stonewall becomes the commercial interruptions of this fucking after school special. In the denouement, Danny’s sister tells him that she admonished her parents for not being very Christian-like. No, really. It’s that clunky.
Anyways, things happen. Danny gets a $25 dollar blowjob from a not terrible-looking older man, and cries about it during the blowjob. No, he really cries about getting a hummer. That he chose to get. Later, in the vein of the original Stonewall, he hooks up with the masculine white guy, Trevor, who works for the Mattachine Society. They dance to “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (not even joking) and then have sex to some ultra lounge bossa nova bullshit (have you ever had sex to elevator music? It’s distracting!). This is the most satisfying sex in the movie. Well, I’d prefer the boinking in the back of a truck to that bossa nova bullshit, but this is a movie for middle America and they think we’re all supposed to like the vanilla bedroom sex so I’ll pretend that’s satisfying. Later, Trevor cheats on him with another twink. But, really, nobody cares.
Not much of anything happens in the second act, which could be completely removed and nobody would even suspect. Emmerich and Baitz spin their wheels a bit. They try to inject thrills by including a subplot of Ed Murphy, a real life mob guy who was a bouncer for the Stonewall. Baitz makes Murphy into the full on manager who kidnaps fresh-off-the-bus twinks and forces them to hustle with big shots. This time around, the client is J. Edgar Hoover. Dressed in drag, he gives Danny a very harrowing blowjob, during which Danny cries…again. Danny has to be rescued from this blowjob by Ray, who thinks that Danny is going to be killed after he has his orgasm. The Little Death, indeed. It’s a very scary hummer…and a bit inaccurate. The real story is that Murphy was actually using the kids to blackmail the big shots, and would make them disappear if they started getting mouthy…but we needed a villain, right? Anyways, this whole subplot is handled with all the subtlety of an Emmerich movie.
Eventually we get around to that apocryphal saw of Judy Garland dying, and everybody being all tragic on the day of her funeral. Well, everybody except Danny who doesn’t even know who Judy Garland is. He doesn’t even know about The Wizard of Oz. No, really. Apparently they never watched The Wizard of Oz in Indiana because that’s too gay? I dunno.
FINALLY, the raid and riots happen. Now, I’m well over 1000 words into this goddamned review, and all of the bullshit you saw before could have been forgiven if the riots were handled right. Sure, there have been no female parts of significance (all the women who have lines in the first 90 minutes of the film were in the flashback – mom, sis, QB’s mom, QB’s girl, and coach’s secretary – and, no, they don’t talk to each other), and the only way that this movie has significantly deviated from 1995’s Stonewall is by shoving the minority characters to the back of the bus. But, I could have forgiven these transgressions if Emmerich had portrayed the riots perfectly.
Alas, Emmerich even gets this wrong. For starters, Emmerich validates the chief of police who has maintained that the gay bar raids were an attack on organized crime and not homosexual behavior. The reason for the inciting raid was to arrest Ed Murphy for his participation in the hustler ring, and not to bust the Stonewall Inn’s chops. Later Ed Murphy, handcuffed to Marsha P. Johnson, goes to a leather bar where Marsha and a gang of leather boys take a final stand against him and his mobster ways.
The one thing Emmerich improves on is he includes the famous lesbian inciting the first wave of violence by shouting “Why are you just standing there?” (As a side note, I think she is the only woman in New York City who actually gets a speaking line) But, then he kills that good will by having the black hustler give Danny the first brick to throw. Danny, the just-off-the-bus cornfed white boy from Indiana who has a full ride to Columbia University, is forced to choose between the passive Mattachine guy who just cheated on him, or the radical queens with whom he is trying to reconnect. By throwing the brick and screaming “Gay Power,” he chooses the hustlers. And, so, Emmerich gives a good portion of responsibility to the white boy.
Now, I’m going to pause my bitchfest to give credit where credit is due. Outside of those key stumbles, the riots are kind of fantastic. The 15 minutes between that fucking brick, and the end of the night, are the second best moments of the movie (following the one minute at the beginning of the film that is also the riots). If absolutely nothing else, Emmerich knows how to direct kinetic action sequences. In fact, if Emmerich had merely made a movie about the five days of rioting, we’d probably all be singing his praises. It could have been as intense and joyous as Selma. When the kids are trying to burn down the Stonewall with little more than lighter fluid or using parking meters as battering rams, Emmerich is on point. It’s too bad about the other 100 minutes.
When the riot ends (we only get one day of rioting), we fast forward (without announcement) to next May. Wait…what?? What about the multiple days of rioting? What about how that led to open congregation and rebellion? What about how that led to new activist groups and more political attention? What was it that made Stonewall special? Eh…Emmerich and Baitz don’t care. They care about what happens to their fictitious Danny.
Next May, Danny returns home to find Joe has knocked up Sarah and married her (WE STILL DON’T CARE!). He spends a bunch of time in the Golden Twilight Hours talking to his younger sister as his mother listens and cries (there’s actually a lot of crying in this movie). We learn that he succeeded in his first year at Columbia. Then we jump to the first gay march, and see an image of thousands of gay people marching down New York City. Danny’s mother and sister are watching him march in the parade as his sister mouths “I Love You.” Danny cheerfully marches with his band of friends as the movie cuts to a shot of the giant march winding through Manhattan. A happy ending for all…well, at least for the fictitious white boy who has been the focus of this movie. His street hustler friends are probably still struggling, turning tricks, and homeless. But, it’s still a happy ending dammit!!!
Cut to: EXPLANATION CARDS!
Emmerich finally gives credit to the various real life characters that have been peering around the corners of this film. Not that any of them ever got more than 2 minutes of screen time because white boy takes precedence. But, then Emmerich and Baitz give us two more sucker punches of stupidity, just in case we didn’t hurt enough. The first is them explaining that we celebrate gay pride in honor of the Stonewall Riots…which is almost as groan-inducingly obvious as The Imitation Game‘s “Today, we call them computers.” Worse is the final title card: “We dedicate this movie to all the unsung heroes.” That title card competes with The Imitation Game‘s “In 20xx, The queen pardoned all the gays prosecuted under those laws” title card for most condescending title card of the decade. If you’re going to dedicate the movie to all the unsung heroes, WHY NOT MAKE A MOVIE ABOUT THEM?! WHY MAKE A MOVIE ABOUT THIS MILQUETOAST NON-DESCRIPT FICTIONAL FARM BOY FROM INDIANA INSTEAD OF ONE OF THE MORE INTERESTING PEOPLE ALREADY IN NEW YORK? OR, BETTER YET, WHAT ABOUT INCLUDING A LESBIAN OR TWO?! HOW FUCKING RADICAL WOULD THAT BE?? OR, WHAT ABOUT MAKING A MOVIE ABOUT STONEWALL’S IMMEDIATE IMPACT ON NEW YORK CITY? WHY DO WE HAVE TO HAVE THE SAME DAMNED MOVIE TWICE?!
In other words, everything you heard is right: Stonewall is worse than you imagined. Men cry while getting blowjobs. The good gay sex is set to muzak. The plot is lifted so heavily from 1995’s Stonewall that I hope Rikki Beadle Blair sues for plagiarism. Minority characters and real life activists are shoved to the back. The entirety of the second act is stupid and unnecessary. Masculine twinks are the ideal, and could never love a minority sissy (but, they’ll be your friend). And, overall, it is complete garbage whose main objective is to either say homeless queer youth have it tough, or without homeless queer youth we’d not have gay pride (or maybe both).
I remember ranting against Roland Emmerich directing this because I feared he had lost touch with his radical nature. Rich white gays who make commercial product for heterosexual white audiences tend to lose the ability to see from anywhere except on high. It happened to Elton John. And, that’s what happened to Emmerich. Like so many gay men, he lost touch with his activist nature. The Stonewall Riots aren’t a safe action meant to hang pansy tales of homeless youth to scold white middle America. The Stonewall Riots have been crowned the first Fuck You to our oppressors. Whitewashing the event for the mainstream, just as Gay Pride parades have become increasingly sanitized for families and mass audiences, is exactly what the Mattachine Society would have wanted. Making a movie about Stonewall without actually being about the Stonewall Riots, nor their impact on gay politics is lazy at best. Fuck this movie.