For a film that ostensibly wants to tell its viewers about the Stonewall riots and what they meant for the LGBT rights movement in America, Stonewall actually manages to say very little about it.
The Stonewall riots were a watershed in the history of LGBT rights, a spontaneous eruption of civil unrest that started from the Stonewall inn, a mafia-run speakeasy that acted as a nexus and shelter for the poor and marginalised LGBT elements of New York City. Stonewall, however, spends most of its time following the travails of a protagonist that seems incongruously out of place in this milieu – the young Danny Winters, a gay youth from Indiana cast out by his parents and newly arrived in New York to start a new life.
Now, centering your narrative on a fictitious white protagonist is not in itself a bad thing from an artistic perspective – even though it might have troubling Hollywood-style whitewashing undertones. But Winters is nevertheless the film’s biggest issue in several respects. Stonewall isn’t really about the Stonewall riots. It’s relegated to a milestone in Winter’s character arc. The film’s preoccupation with Winters takes the focus away from the historical import of the riots and what they meant to the LGBT pride movement. I expected to come away from the film with a deeper understanding of the Stonewall riots, or at least, the filmmaker’s own interpretation of the events. Instead, all I got was an account of a fictional white guy who incited the Stonewall riots as part of his coming-of-age narrative. It trivialises the former just so Emmerich can spin out the latter.
Winters’ whiteness introduces another troubling element to the film. The film depicts him as being the instigator and catalyst of the riots, as if the actual residents of Greenwich, the ones who’d suffered under the system of abuse their whole lives (and were doubly- and triply- dis-privileged – being black, women or transgender), were unable to make their stand until this child of relative privilege came along and riled them up to action, a his pit stop in his journey to greater self-actualization (he later heads on to Columbia on a scholarship). And then we have the minstrelization of the supporting cast, the hodgepodge of gender-fluid, queer, cross-dressing denizens of Greenwich, presented to the viewer either as comedic relief or for shock value. With the possible exception of Ray/Ramona, played by Jonny Beauchamp, the cast tend to over-perform in the stereotypical gay-camp department. Marsha Johnson, in particular, was portrayed as a campy airhead in the movie, when in reality she was one of the prominent leaders of the gay scene. This trivialization of history in favor of Emmerich’s precious (and fictional) all-American protagonist doesn’t do the film any favors either.
This centering of the story on Winters, and its whitewashing might not have mattered as much if Winters’ coming-of-age story had been presented well. But it’s not. It’s a bunch of loosely-strung together elements that have little sense of narrative continuity. Most of all, the lead-up to Winter’s climactic moment isn’t convincing. We are shown that the elements of Winter’s turn to violence (and by extension, his moment of character transformation) are: being jilted by his pacifist lover Trevor, being kidnapped to perform a discreet sexual service for a rich, corpulent cross-dressing magnate, and a sense of distant solidarity with his newfound genderfluid street friends. So, the main drivers of Winter’s discontent against the heteronormative system have nothing to do with his oppression against the heteronormative system, but rather elements of the homosexual subculture of his surroundings. But instead, he’s directing his anger at the cops for letting a suspected murderer of gay youth in the city (Ed Murphy) escape. It feels like the film is misdirecting the subject of its righteous anger against the police and not against the main catalysts of Winter’s discontent.
And then, after the Stonewall riots, what happens? Nothing. Winters becomes self-actualised, gets into Columbia, goes back to town to settle things with his teenage love Joe, and visits his estranged family. Then there’s a nice series of captioned scenes (as is common with historical films) stating what happened afterwards, but these captions are rather dissonant with the rest of the film. The suspected gay youth murderer Ed Murphy becomes a respected gay rights campaigner? How? What? Marsha Johnson, portrayed as a spaced-out, scatterbrained drag queen, becomes a respected community organiser? Those stories are the ones that should have been told, instead of Danny Winters’. As it is, the film expects us to buy into their stories, when it’s said nothing about them. The film straight-up telegraphs to you that Stonewall riots led to more gay movements in its closing captions, which are punctuated by scenes of a gay march through the streets of New York, led by – you guessed it – Danny Winters. The jump between the riots and gay rights advancement is told, not shown, in the last five minutes or so of the film.
So. This film tells us about a fictional white gay man’s coming of age through applying misdirected violence against cops that, although they were part of a hetero-dominant system, were in that specific instance doing their jobs. The violence somehow leads to the explosion of gay rights movements in the US. Nobody who was real and part of the riots gets any meaningful treatment. And the big emotional payoff of the film is that Danny Winters gets to go to Columbia and hug his sister, with no repercussions. The Stonewall riots are just another anecdote in his CV of self-actualizing activities. Maybe a better Stonewall film might have started with the riots and then showed its viewers how the riots were viewed through different perspectives and how gay rights groups used the riots as a rallying call to organise, or something. Because the riots themselves were, to my understanding, not the be-all and end-all, they were the beginning. And as the beginning, they should not have been used as a climactic capstone to some dude’s muddled coming-of-age story.
I give this film: 1 out of 5 Stonewall mugs