Final Rating: 7/10
Stonewall centers around a fictionalized version of how the Stonewall Riots came to be, both in the lead up and subsequently aftermath of the landmark event. For those not in the know, back in the 1960’s it was illegal for gay people to be served alcohol, among many other laws that make us scratch our heads now, so in order for the a gay person to have a drink or congregate with other members of their community they had to go to mob-run clubs who would pay off the police in order to not get shut down. After being mistreated by the mob (duh), and the police who would still beat them up and arrest them, a riot takes place during one of the raids at the Stonewall Inn, the titular club of the movie, being both a literal and figurative liberation.
The film tells the story of a young man named Danny (Jeremy Irvine) from Kansas, who after being kicked out of his home makes his way to Greenwich Village to start a new life for himself. Unfortunately since he doesn’t have his necessary paper work to receive his scholarship to Columbia University he ends up in limbo, living with other street youths who mostly are forced to sell their bodies just to afford to live another day. The film, for better or for worse makes the lead as nonthreatening and all American looking as possible, in hopes that the average viewer won’t be grossed out or disgusted by the world he is entering.
Roland Emmerich directed the movie, but in the marketing they cleverly omit his past work as such luminous titles like 2012, The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day grace his resume. The first scene in the movie shows Danny on a bus driving into New York City, and the whole skyline is CGI, so while you can take the director out of the CGI disaster flicks you can’t take the CGI out of the director.
While there has been a bevy of criticism (before anyone had even seen the film) about the film’s lack of diversity, I can categorically put that to rest. Outside the handsome white male lead, you have plenty of people of colour not to mention transgendered and lesbian characters as well. While at times some of the “queens” and “twinks” may seem a little too much like a bad stereotype, when stepping back and seeing the forest you realize how varied the portrayals of the gay community actually are. You have the suit and tie wearing ex-NASA scientist who urges conformity of the gay community in order to assimilate into society, an ex-marine who you don’t even realize is gay until ¾’s of the way through the movie as he is more interested in helping the street kids stay alive than flaunting his sexuality and toughness, a tough as nails monster (Ron Pearlman) who forces young teenage boys into prostitution for his own compensation on top of the myriad of drag queens, flamboyant dancers, hippies and mods.
The film is mostly about friendship and overcoming the obstacle of being gay in a world where people thought you were a deviant, perverted and had a mental disease. What the film fails to do at a better level is show that being gay isn’t gross. It perfectly encapsulates being nearly homeless and being surrounded by drugs, alcohol and filth while being subjected to physical and emotional abuse from society, the police, other members of the gay community and even Tricks. Seeing Danny being taunted by two police officers before being brutally beat up is a stark reminder of how far our society has come in only 46 years. While all the negative aspects of being relegated to the dregs of the city is shown in sometimes graphic details, we are only treated to two tender moments of what the life of a gay person is like. One being the only true love scene involving Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ Trevor and Danny and the when we see the ex-marine and his partner have a happy stable life of living together, something that Danny imagined to be impossible.
There are shades of Spike Lee’s seminal film about race relations Do The Right Thing as both movies excel at letting tensions and anger simmer until the boiling point of no return, but where Lee succeeds in having the riot the most impactful scenes in the film, Emmerich fails as when the riots finally occur they are shot more like an action film than a protest. The riots themselves actually lasted four days, but this film only shows the first night and leaves the rest of the information to show up in title cards before the credits. What was the aftermath, why did they continue, what else occurred outside of the Stonewall Inn being destroyed?
The performances of the lead boys from Irvine, Jonny Beauchamp as Ray, Otoja Abit as Marsha P. Johnson and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers are all standouts in a stellar ensemble cast that makes you feel a wide variety of emotions as you watch this marginalized section of society take their lumps and grow stronger each day. It isn’t exactly an easy film to watch as far as the abuse, both sexual and physical that occurs and while the sex isn’t explicitly shown, more so cleverly avoided in Hitchcockian fashion it is front and center. While there are other mainstream films such as Philadelphia and Milk that showcase the darker side of the gay rights movement, this is one of a few major releases that will put gay issues front and center. When making this movie Emmerich could not have known its timely nature as only a few months ago gay marriage was finally legalized in all of the United States, something that we Canadians can proudly boast of having since 2005, it offers a pause in celebration to remember how it took some very brave people to force the movement forward culminating in the world’s first gay pride parade after the riots were finished.