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