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In Roland Em­merich’s retelling of New York’s epic 1969 Stonewall ri­ots, which changed the game for gay rights in Amer­ica, a young white Mid­west­ern boy not long off the bus casts the first stone that ig­nites an ex­plo­sion of years of pent-up rage.

That rage had plenty be­hind it. In ad­di­tion to wide­spread leg­isla­tive and em­ploy­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion against ho­mo­sex­u­als across the coun­try, and a hold­ing by the Amer­i­can Psy­chi­atric As­so­ci­a­tion that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was a men­tal dis­or­der, there was in the 1960s a con­certed ef­fort by po­lice in ma­jor cities like New York to en­trap and ar­rest gays and trans­ves­tites. Add to that the fre­quent raids on gay bars and po­lice bru­tal­ity, and the lid was ready to blow.

Em­merich (In­de­pen­dence Day) and play­wright/ screen­writer Jon Robin Baitz (Other Desert Cities) have elected to tell the tale through the eyes of Danny (Bri­tish ac­tor Jeremy Irvine), a fresh-faced, sweater model-hand­some kid from In­di­ana who is outed when he’s caught in a car with the quar­ter­back of the football team. Turned away by his par­ents, Danny comes to New York, the city with the coun­try’s largest gay pop­u­la­tion, and heads straight for Christo­pher Street in Green­wich Vil­lage, ground zero for the queer life.

The film does cart­wheels to show us how col­or­ful the Vil­lage gays are, in­tro­duc­ing a bevy of home­less kids led by Ray ( Jonny Beauchamp), an an­drog­y­nous beauty with soft eyes, flam­boy­ant ges­tures, and a heart of gold. As Danny is wel­comed into the ranks of Ray’s gays and learns (some­times painfully) the ropes of life on the street, the story cuts back and forth be­tween that and the events in In­di­ana that brought him here.

The Stonewall Inn was a grungy Mafia-owned dive on Christo­pher Street run by a thug named Ed Mur­phy (Ron Perl­man) where gays con­gre­gated be­cause they could be served drinks and dance to the juke­box. Po­lice raids were reg­u­lar, but the club was gen­er­ally tipped off in ad­vance in re­turn for bribes, and the raids usu­ally were staged early enough in the evening so things could set­tle back to nor­mal for the rest of the night.

One night at the Stonewall, Danny meets Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Mey­ers), a suave and hand­some guy who wins Danny’s heart and breaks Ray’s, who has fallen for the blond Hoosier. Trevor rep­re­sents the other side of the gay move­ment, the re­spon­si­ble Mat­ta­chine So­ci­ety types who are try­ing to change things through dress­ing straight and work­ing the sys­tem. But Trevor is a love ’em and leave ’em se­ducer, and Em­merich’s and Baitz’s hearts are clearly on the side of the street kids, whose anger and anti-es­tab­lish­ment act­ing-out are be­gin­ning to build.

One night, the po­lice make an un­sched­uled raid on the Stonewall. But things don’t go the way they usu­ally do. Trans­ves­tites and les­bians who weren’t wear­ing enough women’s cloth­ing were usu­ally hauled off to the sta­tion, while gay men who could show IDs were al­lowed to leave. But in­stead of dis­pers­ing, the kids gather out­side. A les­bian (Joanne Van­ni­cola) is hand­cuffed and shoved into a po­lice car; she keeps jump­ing out and yelling for her friends to help her. A crowd gath­ers, swells, and be­comes con­fronta­tional. The cops, sud­denly out­manned, bar­ri­cade them­selves in­side the Stonewall and try to sum­mon re­in­force­ments.

Out­side, Danny, stand­ing wild-eyed in front of the mob, picks up a brick.

“Don’t, Danny!” Trevor calls from across the street. “That’s not the way!”

“It’s the only way!” Danny cries, and lets fly. And the game is on.

Now, no­body re­ally knows ex­actly who trig­gered those ri­ots. It prob­a­bly wasn’t a heroic young man fresh from the farm. Stonewall’s trailer pro­voked a firestorm of LGBT protest and de­mands for a boy­cott be­fore the movie ever ar­rived in the­aters. Much of the crit­i­cism stems from the film­mak­ers’ dis­re­gard for the im­por­tant les­bian, trans­gen­der, and other fig­ures in­volved in the upris­ing, pre­sent­ing it as a male-cen­tric af­fair. There are some real-life char­ac­ters rep­re­sented here, like gay-rights ac­tivist Bob Kohler (an un­cred­ited Pa­trick Gar­row), but they mostly don’t rate fea­tured sta­tus. The choice to tell the story as a com­ing-of-age ro­mance with a fic­tional out­sider hero leads the movie into the same trap as tra­di­tional Hol­ly­wood de­pic­tions of AfricanAmer­i­can strug­gles that im­port a white char­ac­ter to save the day.

The film has an im­por­tant piece of history to re­late, and there are times when it does so with gen­uine emo­tional power. Much of the cast is good. Beauchamp’s Ray may re­mind you of Jared Leto’s Os­car-win­ning turn in Dal­las Buy­ers Club. Otoja Abit makes a strong im­pres­sion as the trans­ves­tite Mar­sha P. John­son, one of the real-life Stonewall lead­ers who made the cut. Rhys Mey­ers is se­duc­tively in­tel­li­gent, or vice versa. And Irvine (War Horse), de­spite his over-thetop clean-cut hand­some­ness, man­ages to muster some tough-edged char­ac­ter for Danny as the film goes along. The film’s suc­cesses vie for time with its ex­cesses.

This is a civil rights history pic­ture, and in some ways it is likely to re­mind you of Selma, another re­cent ef­fort that aimed high and scored some solid points, while get­ting par­tially side­tracked by its own ver­sion of history. Things have changed dra­mat­i­cally for gays in this coun­try since Stonewall, as they have for African-Amer­i­cans since the Selma march a few years ear­lier, but we are daily re­minded how bad things still can be for these and other vic­tims of dis­crim­i­na­tion. — Jonathan Richards

Ve­hi­cles for change: Jeremy Irvine, cen­ter

Jonny Beauchamp and Vladimir Alexis

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