Why STONEWALL Doesn’t Work

Roland Emmerich's passion project alienates the very audience he wants to engage.

A couple weeks have passed since Roland Emmerich released his latest disaster flick, Stonewall, to the outrage of the gay community, the transgender community, the Ron Perlman fanboy community, the film critic community and probably the “outraged over outrage” community, too. Maybe we should have seen the uproar coming. Emmerich is not the man you hire to turn civil rights landmarks into cinema: he’s the same guy who made Anonymous, an absolutely bonkers attempt at playing literary detective with Shakespeare’s oeuvre that shamelessly rewrites real-world history in its investigation. Emmerich isn’t cut out for chronicling, in other words, so nobody should have anticipated anything from Stonewall apart from jaw-dropping negligence.

But the “what did you expect?”defense is weak in any circumstance, more so when made on behalf of a movie this casually offensive. By now most of us are well-versed in the many wrongs Stonewall commits in reenacting its titular 1969 riots; the film has been primarily so roundly thrashed by critics and LGBT advocates across the web over the matter of its leading man. There’s no mystery as to why: you can no more write about Stonewall without mentioning the whitewashed hero screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz spins out of whole cloth than you can write about, say, Sicario without tangentially touching on Traffic. Emmerich and Baitz favor Jeremy Irvine’s Danny Winters at the expense of both their supporting cast, partially comprised of minority actors, and the activists and witnesses who were actually there when the Stonewall Inn went up in flames. Glazing over that controversy would be irresponsible.

But Stonewall’s missteps go beyond identity and historical accuracy. (Not that these aren’t important, mind you.) Those are just the two most obvious examples of the film’s insensitivity. The third, less often spoken of but just as egregious, is its portrayal of its gay and trans characters. Sure, yes, compared to Danny, Jonny Beauchamp’s Ray, Vladimir Alexis’ Cong and Otoja Abit’s Marsha P. Johnson (incidentally one of the few Stonewall vets Emmerich bothered to write into his film) aren’t accorded much material to work with, so there’s an argument to make that equity of screen time is the movie’s biggest problem. They’re barely given time to shine, much less glimmer.

There’s as much a problem with insufficient representation in Stonewall, however, as there is with inappropriate representation. Consider how Baitz writes Emmerich’s gay and trans characters: they’re depicted either as cardboard standups cut straight out of Rent or leering predators. In both cases the script utterly forgets to treat them like people. We never get a sense of who they are, what they want, or what motivates them outside the overarching banner of equal treatment and tolerance. But if the struggle to have society acknowledge gay and trans personhood makes for interesting drama, the film doesn’t make the men and women involved in that struggle interesting.

In fairness, Stonewall occasionally, nearly gets there. Beauchamp, the film’s standout star, puts a ton of soul into Ray and makes the honey glazed ham-handed dialogue Baitz writes for him work or, at least, makes it tolerably charming. (There’s something to be said for a performance that rises above terrible writing and manages to be captivating on the merits of the performer.) There’s one lovely moment later in the movie where he imagines aloud the future he sees for himself and Danny, living in the suburbs, away from the turmoil of the city and its teeming mass of prying eyes and nosy authority. It’s a good enough beat that we want to reconsider everything else that we’ve seen up until it occurs, but Emmerich doesn’t return to that genuine warmth and understanding for the rest of the movie. We know what Ray wants, but what about Cong? What about Annie? What about Marsha, or Bob Kohler, another gay activist whom Emmerich uses as little more than a mentor for Danny?

Worse, though, than the disregard for character development is how Stonewall quietly validates the homophobia and transphobia necessarily illustrated to establish period tone. A flashback in the film’s first act takes us to Danny’s Indiana high school, where he and his classmates are shown a homophobic propaganda movie; it’s the gay panic equivalent of Duck and Cover or Reefer Madness, but Stonewall employs the image of the devious, sex-crazed homosexual throughout its duration. When Danny arrives in New York City, he’s aggressively propositioned by Queen Tooey, who doesn’t take “no” for an answer until Ray shows up to save Danny from a pancake battered fate. Later, he’s pimped out to an unidentified corpulent man in drag (supposedly a J. Edgar Hoover surrogate), who fellates Danny as he cries. (It’s the second time in the film that this happens to the poor kid; in the first instance, the john is just a random stranger. Both sequences are so exploitatively discomfiting that you may swear off oral sex for a few weeks, if not months.)

And then, of course, there’s Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Trevor, a member of the Mattachine Society, who seduces Danny with his chiseled cheekbones, assimilation politics and swank apartment. He’s the king of the creeps Stonewall parades before us, and the exact kind of nefarious homosexual that propaganda film warns Danny about long before his trek to the Big Apple. In fairness to Emmerich, this is ostensibly part of his point - the social stigmas placed on homosexual and transgender folks spurred the dangerous cycle that Danny and his friends are caught in, which makes them vulnerable to people like Ed. And it’s likely that Emmerich simply didn’t catch the parallels between the portrayal of characters like Tooey and faux-Hoover and the classroom movie. But his misstep is clumsy, and looks even clumsier in context with similarly-themed fare that’s been released in theaters within the last couple of years. Is it that much of a challenge to give gay and trans characters the humanity on screen that they’re so often denied in real life?

Sean Baker’s Tangerine and Matthew Warchus’ Pride both say “what, no, absolutely not, are you kidding me?” These movies don’t lean on shallow clichés to build their characters; they’re positively layered with humanity, and they both became commercially available roughly within a year of Stonewall’s release. Pride is a slightly better analogue here; like Stonewall, Pride recreates a watershed moment in the quest for gay rights by taking us back to 1984 England and Wales, where a group of young gay and lesbian activists came together to support the villagers of the Welsh mining town Onllwyn during the British miners’ strike. (If you’re prone to reading into things, Stonewall’s poster, boasting the tagline of “Where Pride Began,” reads like a passive-aggressive swipe against Warchus’ movie, likely because Emmerich knows that it’s superior to his own.) But even Tangerine, a screwball jaunt through West Hollywood’s sex work culture, squeezes more humanity out of its two protagonists - played, in point of fact, by two transgender actresses - in 80 minutes than Stonewall does in 111.

Tangerine and Pride care about their characters. Baker lets us see the whole circumference of Sin-Dee and Alexandra as we take a ride through a day in their lives, enduring heartbreak, betrayal and humiliation in varying degrees along the way. The film isn’t all ennui, either; there’s joy in Sin-Dee’s bombast and hope in Alexandra’s pursuit of her dream. Neither is pigeonholed into embodying one trope or another. They’re simply allowed to be who they are with no judgment applied, which, frankly, is the entire goal of the LGBT movement to begin with. (Hell, we feel like we’re practically stomping down the streets with them. Baker’s lens gives his viewers a proximity to the characters that Stonewall is missing.) Pride, meanwhile, is built out of the same heart fostered in that tender aforementioned scene between Danny and Ray. It’s strung together from those kinds of scenes, with sequences of protest, shocking but muted violence, familial strife and familial reconciliation, as well as smart, touching examinations of gay awakenings and identities.

These movies, for lack of a better phrase, give a shit. Theoretically so does Stonewall. Emmerich has described it as his passion project, which is probably genuinely true. But his passion is obfuscated by an infantile need to inject an audience identification figure into the film for the wrong audience, a choice that ultimately alienated the moviegoers he needed to appeal to most. By pushing Marsha P. Johnson, Bob Kohler, Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy either to the sides of the frame or out of the picture entirely, he pushed viewers away, too. Tangerine and Pride do the opposite: they invite us - all of us, no matter our gender or sexual identities - to participate without leaning on the crutch of white saviorhood. Baker and Warchus want to educate us. Emmerich, meanwhile, just wants to cause an uproar.