Films chronicle gay rights from Stonewall to US Supreme Court

19 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Stonewall’: TIFF Review.

As one of a relatively small handful of out gay directors who have done very well out of mainstream Hollywood, Roland Emmerich brings an admirable sense of giving back to a commitment to tracing the roots of gay pride through its most galvanizing event.The director of hit blockbusters Independence Day and 2012 is in Canada to promote his new film Stonewall, which focuses on the riots of 1969 that lead to the formation of the gay rights movement.

The trailer for the drama “Stonewall,” due in theaters on Friday, Sept. 25, focuses on a fictional young, blond, white gay Midwesterner named Danny who arrives in New York City and soon becomes a leader in the historic uprising by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patrons of the West Village bar the Stonewall Inn in response to a police raid on June 28, 1969.The Toronto International Film Festival may be nearing its end, but you still have more than 48 hours to catch some of this year’s best films and exciting events. If the resulting drama, Stonewall, seldom escapes its cliches or cookie-cutter characters, it also recounts a political origin story in relatable, often affecting terms that should connect with a young LGBT audience curious to know more about those who paved the way toward equality and social acceptance. It’s the first time he’s made a film centring on gay issues and it’s been a deliberate move on his part. “For me, being gay in Hollywood was easy,” he said. “I never made a big deal out of it.

During the roughly two-minute trailer, the tag line “inspired by the incredible true story of the unsung heroes whose courage broke down walls” scrolls dramatically across the screen. Either out of befuddlement (the not particularly well-liked director of The Day After Tomorrow and Godzilla making a movie about the definitive act of protest in gay America’s history?) or out of disapproval (the vehemently despised director of The Day After Tomorrow and the Godzilla making a movie about the definitive act of protest in gay America’s history) or just plain concern (the director of … oh, you get it).

Roadside Attractions would be smart to target that core demographic with this Sept. 25 release, which marshals appealing, capable performers in a glossy package that fulfills its ambitions, albeit without a great deal of authenticity or grit. Even with its many hackneyed ingredients, this is a marked improvement on Emmerich’s last foray beyond the popcorn blockbuster, Anonymous, a pedestrian 2011 period piece questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s works. Critics say it misrepresented and “whitewashed” who was actually at the Stonewall that night and left out characters based on real-life Latina and black trans protesters like Marsha P. I’m always intrigued to see what big-budget Hollywood directors do on a smaller scale, and last time Emmerich was here with his Shakespeare film – Anonymous – he wasn’t perfect, but he was interesting.

Much of the digging into history in this fictionalized drama, penned by playwright and TV writer Jon Robin Baitz, is confined to context-establishing introductory screen text detailing the lack of civil rights and widespread stigmatization prevailing at the time. Emmerich is a gay man but without much in the way of a track record for LGBT themes in his movies, so there was a lack of trust in the gay community, to the point that even the trailer drummed up angry responses and accusations of whitewashing the participation of trans activists and queer people of color from the historical record. It’s not befitting but now I can be openly gay and still make these films.” The initial release of the Stonewall trailer caused some controversy with claims that the film was focusing on the white male experience over all others as well as a suggestion that a brick through a window is what started the riots.

It’s a busy day on the general screening schedule, including the festival’s Short Cuts Programme, which runs all day at Scotiabank Theatre (259 Richmond St.). That figure is reflected with compassion in the film’s core group of characters, who congregate on Christopher Street stoops and around the mob-owned Stonewall Inn, turning tricks for cash and sleeping by the dozen in shabby flophouse rooms in Manhattan’s West Village. Emmerich is currently working on Independence Day: Resurgence, bringing back original actors Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman with new stars Liam Hemsworth and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

It’s a nuanced and powerful question, 46 years after the riots — which lasted several days — became part of a broader push for gay and transgender rights. Stonewall is far from an ill-intentioned film, but it is a fatally flawed one, and that fatal flaw is going to be interpreted (and not always unfairly) in the least charitable ways possible. Orphan Annie (Caleb Landry Jones) has a beatnik thing going on, Cong (Vladimir Alexis) robs and make his own clothes, Quiet Paul (Ben Sullivan) doesn’t say much. West) will host an unofficial TIFF-related Bachelor Party tonight featuring former The Bachelor/The Bachelorette stars Michael Stagliano, Chris Bukowski and others. Instead, the story is framed through the experience of the very white, very wholesome Indiana refugee Danny (Jeremy Irvine), who looks like he stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch jock dreamboat catalog.

When asked if studio Fox were bothered by this he claimed: “They never said anything!” “The film is also a reboot and a 20 year celebration,” he said. “Technically, there is such a revolution going on to do with computers so it’s interesting for me to revisit it with all this new technology, If you want to stay relevant, you’re sometimes forced to do these things.” Diversity representation mostly functions as colorful window-dressing, with notes of humor pretty much confined to routine sassy attitude, and when the riot starts, the Wonder Bread lead gets to throw the first brick.

Baitz, the playwright and screenwriter, continue to stand by the trailer, created by the London-based Picture Production Company, and the film. “What can I say? Oh, but there’ll be some crazy action courtesy of Takashi Miike (13 Assassins) featuring vampires, gangsters, earthquakes, volcanoes, monsters, martial arts, and a knitting circle. The events surrounding Stonewall have been chronicled across a wide fact-through-fiction span in books, documentaries, plays and the occasional narrative film, notably Nigel Finch’s identically titled 1995 indie feature. That film featured a central character dynamic identical to this one — cute Midwestern twink, fresh off the bus, gets taken under the wing and into the bed of a flamboyant drag queen. The latter character in the Emmerich-Baitz version is androgynous Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), who only dabbles in drag and whose unrequited love for Danny is drawn too perfunctorily to pack much emotional weight.

If people want to boycott a movie because of its trailer, what kind of country do we live in?” The Mafia-controlled Stonewall Inn, a gay bar routinely raided by police in the ’60s, was popular among homeless youth, drag queens, transgender people, butch lesbians and prostitutes. Emmerich does himself no favors by keeping a tone of malevolence throughout the entire landscape of the film, from back-alley blowjobs to the interior of Stonewall itself.

Stonewall has been billed as the story of a young gay man’s political awakening, but Danny – the sweet-natured wally – takes an age to stir himself. While the film does include main characters from minority groups, like Danny’s streetwise Puerto Rican prostitute friend Ray/Ramona (Jonny Beauchamp) and members of his posse, it revolves around Danny (played by Jeremy Irvine), from flashbacks of him in Indiana to him hurling a brick at a window during the riots. Johnson (Otoja Abit), credited with being one of the first to resist the police, appears in several scenes, but as a secondary character. “Seeing the film in its entirety was disappointing in how once again white gay men reduce trans women of color down to historical, social and political props,” said Ashley Love, 35, a journalist and coordinator with the education group Stonewalling Accurate & Inclusive Depictions.

Given the historical significance of Judy Garland, who died just days before the riots, references abound, with Danny figuring as the story’s Dorothy Gale, catapulted from Kansas to Oz. But the new “Stonewall” arrives amid a much-changed society, in a year in which the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage a constitutional right and Caitlyn Jenner made her debut on the cover of Vanity Fair. The pop culture references (Danny’s sister’s Andy Warhol obsession, Ray’s – inevitable – Judy Garland fixation) are broad and obstructive too.

The latter aspect is shown in a scene in which Danny gets a vicious beating from cops in the Meat-Packing District, back before it was a fashion destination, when gay men cruised the streets at night and had sex in the backs of trucks. But at every turn, he’s kept separate and special from the group, and at many points he’s shown gravitating towards more “normalized” gay men (handsome activist Jonathan Rhys-Meyers; a committed white couple). One scene late in the film is borderline laughable in its depiction of a leather bar populated by the youngest, prettiest, most scrubbed-looking S&M boys in history — more Bel Ami than Tom of Finland, for those who know their homoerotic iconography. While Danny’s narrative arc is a well-traveled one, Emmerich and editor Adam Wolfe do a smooth job of interweaving his bumpy entree into New York gay life with the past he fled in small-town Indiana, where his high school football coach father (David Cubitt) suspects Danny’s secret and is determined to snuff it out.

Pat Cordova-Goff, an 18-year-old who describes herself as a “trans woman of color” and a student at Citrus College in Glendora, Calif., created the Gay-Straight Alliance Network petition calling for a boycott of “Stonewall” after watching the trailer. After the first night of violence, Emmerich eschews the further days of unrest in the Village (he leaves this to the postscript) to follow Danny back to Kansas for a few days of family reconciliation. The petition has now racked up more than 24,100 signatures. “There was so much potential in this movie,” she said, adding: “The argument that the best person for the role of a trans person is a cis person ignores the fact that there are so many trans actors and actresses waiting for their big break.

Despite her evident sorrow, Danny’s fearful mother (Andrea Frankle) is unable to intervene when he’s forced to leave home before completing school, thus jeopardizing his scholarship to Columbia. His kid sister Phoebe (Joey King) is already developing her own liberal views, as opposed to those of her conservative religious parents, and she’s the most distraught at her brother’s departure. In The Danish Girl, pioneering trans artist Lili Elbe’s story is told through a dual POV, both Lili (Eddie Redmayne) and her wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), which can’t help put play as a kind of hand-holding gesture to straight audiences, a character who’s just as at sea with all of this queer gray area as they are.

A member of the Mattachine Society makes a speech about how gay men should assimilate. “Wearing a suit and tie will make them realise they’re just like you,” he says. Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are more centered as the lesbian couple at the center of Freeheld, but the reviews for that film have been horribly disappointing, and suddenly what was once a promising movie heading into awards season now feels like a missed opportunity. So while it risks overshadowing the actual Stonewall story, the central thread of a gay youth’s coming of age and political awakening works quite well. Downriver, an Australian film about a young man released from jail after he was convicted of killing another boy as a child, plays a bit like a plottier version of Boy A, the Andrew Garfield film with a similar premise. That early gay rights group is represented primarily by Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who becomes Danny’s lover for a time, causing friction with Ray.

Gay rights pioneer Bob Kohler (Patrick Garrow) is depicted somewhat more prosaically as a sage observer, stuck with such on-the-nose dialogue as “Love isn’t always pretty,” or “They’re not like us, Trevor, these kids have nothing left to lose.” Plotting concerning the involvement of different police divisions — some being paid off to carry out regular bar raids and others more legitimately involved in a crackdown on organized crime and underage prostitution — borders on haphazard. Baitz, 53, was on his honeymoon in Spain when the controversy over the trailer broke. “My husband is baby daddy to a couple, one of whom is trans, and who couldn’t have a kid,” he said. “The last thing I wanted to do is ignore that finally, after the battle for marriage equality, the battle for trans equality is just at its moment.” Even though we know it’s coming — both from historical knowledge and from the footage that opens the movie before jumping back three months — the clash generates sparks both emotional and physical. Some will quibble about the depiction of who led the charge (a minor lesbian character played by Joanne Vannicola is the first shown here violently resisting arrest), but the events portrayed and their enduring significance inevitably have a stirring impact.

Besides, the degree to which urban legend has contributed over the decades to the Stonewall mythology probably makes factual accuracy irrelevant at this point. Filmed in Montreal, the movie has a studio look that might have benefited from more contextualizing shots of New York, beyond the main Sheridan Square set. But the deep colors and textured shadows of the many nighttime scenes make it attractive, even if cinematographer Markus Forderer’s predilection for magic-hour light in exterior scenes adds to the artificiality. But all in all, while Stonewall hits every obvious, manipulative button with a forceful hand, it’s also consistently engaging, relating experiences grounded in the turbulent past that should resonate for many in our more complacent present.

Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Jonny Beauchamp, Joey King, Caleb Landry Jones, Matt Craven, David Cubitt, Vladimir Alexis, Ben Sullivan, Andrea Frankle, Patrick Garrow, Alex C.

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