In 1966, the Mafia invested close to $4,000 to turn New York’s Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street into a gay bar. By 1969, it was known as the gay bar in the city. It was also the place where a series of violent demonstrations took place; demonstrations against the police by members of the gay community who had suffered enough with endless raids, arrests, harassments and unjust laws. Today, the moment is considered to be the single most important event that inspired then developed the gay liberation movement. It’s also the basis of a new film from director Roland Emmerich called simply Stonewall.
During the black and white opening depicting scenes from the stone throwing riots on Christopher Street, clunky typewriter sounds accompany titles setting the scene informing how it was once illegal for homosexuals to be served alcohol in a public place, or how homosexuals were classified as mentally ill. From there, the film backtracks to rural Indiana where we’re introduced to Danny (War Horse’s Jeremy Irvine) a high-school senior who’s trying to come to terms with several confusing elements in his life; his feelings, the prejudices of his football coach father (David Cubitt) and his love for the quarterback, Joe (Karl Glusman).
It’s only when Danny and Joe are caught with each other in a parked car by a couple of other students that everything for Danny changes. The school turns against the boy. So does his coach father, and so, too, does Joe who lies to the school about the affair, insisting that it was a one time thing and that Danny took advantage of him with drugs and lead him down the wrong path. The coach, more concerned with losing his quarterback, turns on his son and forces him to leave not only the school but his home. “There are signs,” Danny’s father tells his wife, “If you don’t see them, I do.”
From there, Danny heads to New York and gravitates towards the West Village where he’s immediately hit upon by an aging transvestite and subsequently rescued by a younger one. “Stay away from him,” Ray/Ramona (Jonny Beauchamp) tells the wide-eyed Hoosier. “Unless you want to be tied up and smothered in pancake mix.”
With a running length of more than two hours, Stonewall spends a lot of time with the fictional Danny and his torments as he witnesses and becomes a part of the lifestyle of Christopher Street. The Stonewall Inn is the meeting place of the local gay community. It’s the only bar in the city where gays can drink, dance and generally be themselves, and it’s here where Danny observes the police harassments, the raids, the arrests and the injustices of the law who are in reality taking their cut of the bar’s profits. The raids were frequent and the bar owner, Ed Murphy (an effectively menacing Ron Perlman) was usually prepared.
In ’95 there was another film of the same name that fictionalized the story. Unfortunately, this new version does the same thing. It invents a character, invests a lot of time setting up the not so original story of an innocent, wide-eyed farm boy who travels to New York, then mixes him with real-life characters of the time, leading up to the eventual street riots. The riot, which here is presented as one, not a series, should have been the point of the film, which I’m assuming was certainly the intention of director Emmerich, but the pivotal event only occurs in the final twenty minutes and seems to be over faster than you would expect. It comes across as more of a climactic backdrop to the misadventures of clean cut Danny in the LGBT version of Wonderland. Despite its smaller scope and size, the riot climax of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing had a greater emotional kick than the larger riot presented here in Stonewall.
Director Emmerich is better known for his over-the-top though hugely entertaining disaster movies such as Independence Day or 2012. With Stonewall, his high production values and the film’s overall appearance remain first class. Shots are well framed, images are clear, plus the lens often looks as though a permanent brown tint is in place. In other words, like his previous films, Stonewall’s overall appearance has no rough-around-the-edges. When wide-eye Danny first arrives in Manhattan and views the city through the bus window it’s a reenactment of what Midnight Cowboy’s Joe Buck experienced in ’69, but with Stonewall the moment, like all of the film, is romanticized. Danny might as well have been Dorothy as she enters Oz. The polished look of Markus Forderer’s cinematography actually works against the film; given the subject and its real-life event, it’s missing the grit.
The riot, though shorter than expected, is well staged. By all accounts, the film gets the details regarding the bar and its inner workings correct. The bouncer inspected customers before they entered through a peephole. Customers had to sign in, though most rarely used their real names, preferring the more colorful monikers of Minnie Mouse or John Wayne. There was no running water behind the bar and glasses were reused. It would be healthier to drink out of a bottle. All of this is in the film, but so too is the lengthy, fictional opus of Indiana Danny, his high-school conflicts, his dad the unforgiving coach, and Danny’s befriending of the gay community in and around Stonewall, and it’s not as interesting.
Clearly, making the film was important for the openly gay director who is said to have put some of his own money into the project. Anything that creates conversation or highlights the importance of the LGBT movement or even changes minds for mainstream audiences is no bad thing, but perhaps by using such a long, fictional path in order to get to a historically important point is not the way to go. The 2010 documentary Stonewall Uprising that uses interviews while incorporating newsreel footage remains the better and most informative path.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 129 Minutes Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)