ReThink Review: Stonewall - Don't Boycott It. Just Skip It

Controversy surrounding Roland Emmerich's gay rights historical drama Stonewall started early when the trailer was released. In it, we see the film's young hero, Danny (Jeremy Irvine), is the person who throws the fateful brick that shatters the window of Greenwich Village's Mafia-run Stonewall gay bar, a moment that incited days of rioting that are widely credited as starting the gay pride movement and the battle for gay rights. While historians are not sure exactly who threw that first brick, the fact that Danny is a white, middle-class boy from Indiana drew the ire of several gay and transgender groups, who announced a boycott of the film since the trailer seemed to indicate that it would be yet another whitewashing of history, painting a handsome, white, straight-looking male as the savior while downplaying the pivotal role that lesbians, people of color, drag queens, and transgender people played in starting the riots. Watch the trailer for Stonewall below.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the confluence of factors and people that ignited the crowd outside the Stonewall that night in June of 1969, including the identity of the brick thrower. And from some pieces I've read, the way that some queer groups attempt to answer these questions may have as much to do with historical accuracy as inter-group political battles and a desire to be respected and acknowledged for playing an important role in (or inciting/leading) arguably the most important moment in the history of gay rights.

As a non-gay, non-historian outsider who doesn't know the competing narratives of this debate, I'll punt on the competing theories of who might've thrown that brick and which (if any) group might've been more prominently in the lead that night. I also understand that fact-based movies often composite, condense, and utilize artistic license to serve the demands of cinematic storytelling, though I think Emmerich's decision to have Danny be the brick thrower was as a bad one for reasons I'll get into later. In general, I'm against the idea of boycotting any movie based on content that no one has seen, as was the case for the calls to boycott Stonewall based solely on a trailer.

While I sympathize with those calling for a boycott of Stonewall, I personally don't support a boycott, especially since I don't believe that Emmerich had any malicious intent. However, let me be clear: I don't think ANYONE should see Stonewall. Not because of its politics or revisionism, but because Stonewall is a terrible movie. Like really, really terrible.

Stonewall fails in almost every aspect imaginable across its too-long 129-minute run time. The characters, writing, and dialogue have the same kind of realism, thoughtfulness, depth, and nuance found in Emmerich's other films, like Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow. Danny, as a character, is incredibly bland, to the point that it's unclear what Danny understands or thinks about his sexuality, which was widely considered at the time to be a mental disorder. Is he scared, ashamed, conflicted, defiant, proud, in denial, or is he simply afraid of how his homophobic, hard-ass football coach dad might react? However, we know for sure that Danny's 14-year-old sister, Phoebe (Joey King), is 100% supportive of Danny being gay, even though Danny doesn't seem totally sure of it himself and a kid Phoebe's age in that era, location, and media landscape would've been incapable of even imagining an out gay person (there were no gay role models) or a world where being gay was anything other than something negative.

Once Danny arrives at Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, the group of gay street kids he falls in with have all the subtlety and relatability as a giant, fire-breathing, radioactive lizard. The kids are so one-dimensional (gayness/being fabulous being their sole dimension) that I was honestly surprised to learn after the movie that Emmerich himself is gay. In fact, the way most of the gay people in the film are portrayed (especially those over 30 years old, who are mostly depicted as suspect, pathetic, or outright repulsive), I imagined that Stonewall was made by well-meaning but naïve heterosexual men who had never met a gay person in their lives and spent the writing and shooting of the film telling each other, "I'll bet this is what gay people are like." And when a character does attempt to speak his truth, it's only slightly less heavy-handed than a flying saucer blowing up the White House.

In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of a single emotionally honest, moving, authentic moment in Stonewall, which is sadly impressive for a movie that's supposed to be about the fight for human dignity and the right to love who you want, which should be universally understandable. Since we know so little about the characters, it's hard to feel any sympathy for them. Jonathan Rhys Meyer's character, Trevor, is a slightly older (therefore suspect) gay man who advocates a more conservative path to gay acceptance through legislation and convincing America that gay people are normal members of society. But instead of extending some sympathy to a character who, for good reason, is worried about a violent backlash against gay people if their movement is too loud, strident, and scary for average Americans, Trevor and those who share his beliefs are labeled as cowards who are "all talk".

That's because teenage Danny, who has lived a comfortable middle-class life in Indiana, has been on Christopher Street for less than a year, and has only nominally been out of the closet and a member of the gay community for less than that, is angrier and more fed up with the treatment of gays than the denizens of Christopher St. who have been living these indignities for years (including weekly raids and arrests at the Stonewall). As dumb an idea as that is, the film then proceeds to undercut it by showing that Danny's true motivations aren't gay rights, but sticking it to Trevor (who seduced Danny and quickly moved on to another) and his wimpy non-violent ways. And, more importantly, Danny discovers, in his words, "I like being mad", which is supposed to be the culmination of Danny's arc. Not that he sees himself and the world differently, or that he realizes something about the inherent value of a life lived with dignity. It's that he likes being angry and violent, and in doing so, accidentally creates gay pride -- or, as he screams (apropos of nothing), "Gay power!"

There are so many things both big and small that are wrong with Stonewall, from the Christopher Street set looking like something you'd find at an East Coast version of Disney's California Adventure, the film's failure to accurately depict how virulently anti-gay America was in the late 60s, to the fact that the film not only shows just the first night of rioting (there were several), but that it doesn't bother to show how or why the riots changed the opinions of either straight or gay people. Who threw the first brick is really the least of the film's problems.

As is usually the case with scripted movies based on actual events, documentaries about the subject are vastly superior. And in regards to the Stonewall riots, such a documentary already exists -- the wonderful 2010 film Stonewall Uprising. Instead of boycotting Stonewall, just skip it and instead watch this great film featuring interviews with the people who were really there and can give the needed context of what America's views on homosexuals were at the time, why the Stonewall and Christopher Street were so special and treasured by the gay people who hung out there, and how the riots went down and the lasting impression they left. Below is my review of Stonewall Uprising along with a discussion I had with Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks about the film, the history of America's anti-gay laws, and how far we have and haven't come.

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