Stonewall Director and Star Defend Film Against Critics Who Claim It …

26 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Stonewall’ review: Out and proud (but a little cowed).

After years of “The Day After Tomorrow,” “2012” and other disaster blockbusters — or is that blockbuster disasters? Named after the 1969 riots by members of the gay community against a police raid at a New York gay club, the film centers around a fictional, straight-acting, homeless kid.

Director Roland Emmerich’s true to life film Stonewall has been working the bad press circuit since its premiere at last week’s Toronto International Film Festival.If you’ve been paying any attention to the conversation surrounding “Stonewall,” the new historical drama from director Roland Emmerich that opens Friday, you’ve probably deduced that early reviewers really, really did not like this movie.

— Roland Emmerich clearly wanted to do penance by directing something important. “Stonewall” presents itself as a superhero origin story, in which the costumed do-gooders are ’60s drag queens, and what’s being born is gay liberation. Emmerich, who is openly gay and is best known for Hollywood blockbusters like ‘Independence Day’ and ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, marks his debut at the helm of an independent film.

The movie has been widely criticized for its whitewashing and misrepresentation of minorities involved in the 1969 gay liberation riots in New York outside the Stonewall bar. The headlines were quite icy: “Stonewall Is Terribly Offensive, and Offensively Terrible.” “There Aren’t Enough Bricks in the World to Throw at Roland Emmerich’s Appalling Stonewall.” “Roland Emmerich for the All-Time Gay Hall of Shame.” The Post, exercising a measure of restraint and diplomacy, proclaimed that “‘Stonewall,’ about a pivotal point in gay history, misses the mark.” When the trailer for “Stonewall” was first released, Internet hordes promptly deduced that the film would be bad. The director commented on the controversy to the BBC, saying it was a “personal” film for him, and that it “is racially and sexually far more diverse than some people appear to think.” Unfortunately for the often polarizing Emmerich, hell hath no fury like a film critic scorned. It appeared that Emmerich’s movie would white-wash one of the most pivotal moments in gay U.S. history by introducing the fictive corn-fed, Midwestern twink that is Danny Winters to guide us through the unwashed wilderness of Christopher Street. Activists highlighted the important role played by transgender black woman Marsha P Johnson (who appears briefly in the trailer and plays a minor role in the film) and called for a boycott.

I don’t know why that is,” says Emmerich. “I think that if there was another name on this as a director, this would look different.” “It’s a fictionalised story. Here is just some of what’s being said about the movie: “Aside from its offensiveness, Stonewall is, plain and simple, a terribly made movie, with an alarmingly clunky script by acclaimed playwright Jon Robin Baitz (‘I’m too angry to love anyone right now’ is one howler) and a production design that makes late 1960s Christopher Street look like Sesame Street. Now that the full cut has screened, though, it has received some of savagest reviews of the year, and not just for its politics; the film is treacly, tedious, long, and surprisingly confusing.

The controversy has only intensified since the film premiered earlier this month at the Toronto film festival, with reviewers surprised by the focus on a fictional white character, Danny (Jeremy Irvine), and the lack of airtime devoted to the riots themselves. The story plunks along, until the riots rather unceremoniously, and confusingly, begin, and then the movie hobbles lamely to a close, giving us a resolution to the family-strife plot that’s the least interesting thing in the movie. Of course, the movie – a surprise change-of-pace from Roland Emmerich, who usually deals in movies about alien invasions, natural disasters and Godzilla – has its heart in the right place. At the screening this writer attended, there was nervous tittering and audible groaning from critics as if they were enduring a two-hour slog through a game of cinematic cliché Bingo. It wants to tell a story about the beginnings of gay liberation – when a motley army of angry gay men and lesbians fought back against a culture that had been routinely harassing them.

The film was literally laughably bad, even when graded on a curve that allows for the typical ways fictive historical dramas based on true events tend to muck things up. Promoting the film, Emmerich defended both his narrative decisions and choice of lead, saying that he’d made the movie for as wide an audience as possible, and that “straight-acting” Danny was an “easy in” for heterosexual viewers.

It is formally inconsistent (it’s a history lesson, no it’s a romance, no it’s group therapy, no it’s an ensemble comedy, no it’s a police procedural) and uniformly miserable. The acting is so pronounced and deliberate it pairs woefully well with the ersatz backdrops, which always look like they were shot on a soundstage (they were — for financial reasons, Emmerich shot in Montreal, not New York) … You get more of a sense of what it’s like to visit SeaWorld in the notoriously abysmal Jaws 3D than you do what it was like to patronize Stonewall in Stonewall. Emmerich confirmed this in an interview with Buzzfeed. “You have to understand one thing: I didn’t make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people,” he said. “I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in.

After some time sleeping in the streets, he falls in with Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), a long-haired, sometimes-in-drag Latino who leads a crew of homeless queer prostitutes. Stonewall veteran Martin Boyce was consulted for historical accuracy in the movie: “Well, we’ve reached a point where everybody’s a Stonewall veteran, and everybody wants to own it,” he says. “I mean, I, as a person that was there and fighting there, found no problem with the film. But both of them get pushed aside so the movie can focus on the far less interesting Danny, played by Jeremy Irvine, a Midwestern farm boy and football star who comes to the big bad city after he’s outed in a small-town scandal.

He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him.” From a mathematical perspective, this makes sense; there are simply more potential ticket-buying straight people than there are LGBT ones. From a movie-making perspective, this was not the best decision. “Stonewall’s” narrative gets repeatedly and awkwardly interrupted with unsubtle exposition.

For example, as Danny is dancing with Trevor, his boyfriend who introduces him to the world of gay activism, Trevor says, quite earnestly, “I’m a member of the Mattachine Society,” and Danny responds “What’s that?” so that the audience may be gifted with an explanation. There’s an assumption that “Stonewall’s” audience will make the decision to see the film knowing nothing about the basics of gay history, even after the president has name-checked Stonewall as a pivotal moment in U.S. civil rights struggles.

Can you imagine if, in “Lincoln,” Daniel Day-Lewis knelt down to explain to an oblivious White House intern the basic facts about the Battle of Gettysburg, just in case the audience somehow missed it in history class and was too lazy to look it up? On his first visit to Stonewall Tavern, the menacing bar manager Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman) tells Ray that he’d like to see more guys like Danny coming through—“All-American, clean-cut kids. He shyly refuses to dance with his new friends in wigs and ratty dresses, but when approached by the white, crisply dressed political activist Trevor (who’s queued up “A Whiter Shade of Pale” on the jukebox—maybe in a flash of cinematic self-awareness?), he gladly hits the dance floor. Ray Castro’s story is he was the one who had the big fight with the police as they were trying to get them inside the police wagon [on the night of the riot]. Interestingly another movie – also called “Stonewall,” and released 20 years ago – wasn’t so frightened, and dared to focus on working-class, minority (and ferociously flamboyant) characters.

Rather than illustrating what is happening, Emmerich and screenwriter Jon Rabin Baitz repeatedly rely on Danny’s clueless questioning to do the heavy lifting for the audience, with supporting characters serving as professors in Gay Oppression and Liberation 101. Cops raid Stonewall under the pretense that it’s illegal to cross dress or sell alcohol to homosexuals; Danny and Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) walk out unmolested, but the others get locked up. The narrative from there, such as it is, has Danny pushed and pulled between the two different queer communities—the poor and marginalized just struggling to survive, and the well-off white people attempting revolution through respectability. What led to his arrest: he had gotten out of the Stonewall Inn after the raid, and then came back to see what was going on and tried to help a friend.

For all of “Stonewall’s” exposition, we come away with little understanding of what made Garland such a beacon of light and hope to so many men. “The Wizard of Oz” absolutely played a huge role in gay iconography, so much so that “friend of Dorothy” was a widely-adapted euphemism for gays (although it’s argued that Dorothy actually refers to writer Dorothy Parker). A closeted Midwestern high school kid falls for the (closeted and openly homophobic) quarterback of the football team and gets caught performing oral sex on said quarterback, much to the horror of the friends who catch them. The improbably neat and happy ending, in which Danny’s homemaker mother (who isn’t even allowed to talk to her son on the phone, by decree of her football coach husband) somehow works up the gumption and gathers the money to get herself and her daughter to New York to cheer on Danny as he marches through the city in the gay pride parade.

Despite learning about her boyfriend Joe’s relationship with Danny, the girlfriend of the closeted high school quarterback marries him and gets pregnant. Nearly all the older gay men are depicted as venal, humorless predators. “That’s something I kind of observed over the years,” Emmerich told the Post. “That the older you get — and don’t forget this is ’69; I was born in ’55 and I’m turning 60 this year — and I know exactly what’s going on there. It’s kind of the older people get, the more they have to use their power/money/whatever to solicit sex.” Trevor romances Danny only to dump him for some other slightly younger, more naive twink, and he only has one move.

Ray is violently hostile to Danny’s relationship with Trevor, whom he calls, disdainfully, “very political.” This hostility is never fully explained, and Danny seems to assume it stems from romantic jealousy. The charitable assumption would be that this is because they’re too preoccupied with survival; the uncharitable but not unsupported assumption would be that they’re just too simple.

He’s savvy enough to navigate violence and poverty, but apparently not enough to think about fighting the conditions that lead to his violence and poverty. He takes Danny to a poorly attended meeting with the Mattachine Society leader Frank Kameny, who advocates using suits, ties, and gentle words to persuade the dominant society that “gay is good.” Coming after the affectionate portrait of the scruffy Christopher Street crew, this viewpoint is meant to seem out-of-touch or cruel. Danny only weakly objects, instead asking for advice on how to become an astronomer—a career path, Kameny says, that is not available to gay people under current law. The riot finally erupts after the police raid Stonewall again and (due to conflicts of interests very shoddily communicated in the script) arrest then free the villainous, mob-connected owner, Murphy. You can make a movie like this three or four hours.” Aside from Danny, the people who appear in “Stonewall” are a parade of one-note, paper-bag characters.

Ray is an irrational, hopeless, Puerto Rican prostitute who’s been living on the street since he was 12 and has learned that it’s normal to endure the occasional bloody attack from a trick. When he grabs a brick from a friend, Trevor objects that violence isn’t the way to fight. “It’s the only way,” Danny screams, breaking a window in the first act of vandalism of the night. “Gay power!” This is no doubt meant to represent a kind of synthesis.

Danny has had a brush with the worst effects of gay oppression on cold sidewalks and dingy flophouses; he has also become politically activated by the squares in suits. They could have a done a lot better job with Ed Murphy [the Stonewall Inn manager, who the film alleges exploited gay homeless youth for financial gain]. Cong likes to steal things because life isn’t fair. “I haven’t seen one dream come true on Christopher Street!” he yells at Danny. “Not one!” The weaknesses of these flimsy characterizations really show with Murphy, the mob guy who’s running a prostitution ring out of Stonewall that’s supposedly supplying J.

Remember: Danny escapes the condition of homeless desperation he finds himself in early in the film explicitly because he’s a “straight-acting,” good-looking, middle-class white man. Perhaps a better title for this movie would have been “Danny Winters: Gay Columbian.” “Stonewall” spends a good amount of time in flashbacks sorting through Danny’s life in Indiana, which has little to do with his life on Christopher Street, aside from the fact that Danny ends up there because his football coach father kicked him out three months before the riots began because Danny was gay. Danny basically dabbles in a gauntlet of homelessness, police harassment, prostitution (narrowly escaping being raped by a figure who is surely meant to be J. Emmerich has used the “Trojan Horse” defense to talk about the creation of Danny’s character; to get straight people to connect to the movie, it needs a “conventional” star. It would be one thing for the movie to take what other critics have called the Forrest Gump approach, and just have Danny be an omnipresent witness to history.

What I can’t quite figure out is why the movie would make the white gay hero the leader of the uprising, and to make his leadership the direct result of his race, class, and masculine affect. Throughout the film, Danny has subtly rebuffed his romantic advances, a fact that many critics have pointed out plays into the worst tendencies of mainstream gay culture today to see “femmes” and people of color as undesirable. Danny has finished his freshman courses at Columbia and visited home, wearing a swanky city-boy jacket and bonding lovingly with his sister and mother. I have to say that after seeing the premiere of the movie last night, I was brought to tears by the performances of the transgender and youth of color. So I say thank you to the many youth who gave great performances and hope the movie in its own way can further an understanding of the rejection, oppression and hatred that many of our LGBT youth still experience today.

As the movie’s production values painfully make clear, this isn’t 1969 – mainstream audiences can (and should) deal with the kind of complex, diverse LGBT characters television has been churning out for the past few years. The real offence is that Stonewall focuses so heavily on this stock leading man that it sacrifices the stories of the homeless LGBT youth to whom this film was dedicated, and in so doing simply perpetuates the whitewashing of the LGBT community.

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