Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Jonny Beauchamp, Caleb Landry Jones, Ron Perlman
Director: Roland Emmerich
It's difficult to watch Stonewall with a fresh pair of eyes considering the furore that surrounded it upon release. Criticism was hurled at it from every angle, accusing racism, historical inaccuracy and, at points, even homophobia. So for what was clearly intended to be a landmark movie, what exactly is it that's wrong with the film that caused it to be released with so little fanfare, it might as well have appeared with a bag over its head? This is a film that depicts the most renowned landmark moment in LGBT History, so surely this should be a story that tells itself, where a good director could just join the dots and tell the true story of what happened before, during and after the Stonewall Riots? Well, for Emmerich, this wasn't enough. And that's the film's main problem.
Danny (Irvine) is a young gay man who has been disowned by his father. Moving to New York for college, he finds himself drawn to Christopher Street and the Stonewall Tavern, where he meets a group of brash but confident hustlers and drag queens, with whom he becomes friends. In the bar, he meets the enigmatic Trevor (Meyers), with whom he embarks on a whirlwind relationship, too consumed with his newfound romance to notice the regular police raids or the arrests of his friends. But before long, he is forced to confront the increasing oppression that is being forced on the LGBT people, solely for wanting to congregate together.
Dramatising a real historical event is tricky. The potential for drama is obvious, as it is inherent in the situation in which it has been set, but when something portrayed goes beyond artistic license to becoming downright untrue, it veers onto uncertain ground. And when the topic is something held with such reverence as the Stonewall Riots, that uncertain ground becomes almost blasphemous. Watch Titanic and you're seeing an account of the deaths of rich white people, but watch a film about Stonewall and you should be watching a film about street-kids and drag queens, most of whom were African-American or Latino. And while there are several characters who fit this description featuring as supporting characters, the whole shebang is seen - and instigated - by a handsome, blonde, tanned, young, straight-acting man. Do you see the difficulty here?
Jeremy Irvine is a non-threatening, very attractive, young man. As far as we know, he's straight. There may well have been several men matching his description present in the Stonewall Tavern on the night in question, but the accounts and reports that live on as a historical document of the night focus entirely on absolutely everyone else. Emmerich even admitted whilst making the film that Irvine had been cast to allow an identifiable entry-point for the standard cinemagoer, but in a film about non-white LGBT people, why is the white non-LGBT audience being considered as a priority? That would be like making a film about the only white slave in the Deep South, or the Christian accidentally stuck in Auschwitz. As a result of this terrible misfire, Stonewall fails on every level.
The film's only redeeming quality is Jonny Beauchamp, whose depiction of the Latino drag queen Romona is about as close to what Stonewall should have been about. Energetic, street-smart and engaging, this character would have been a much more appropriate protagonist, through whom we could see the same hardships and the same oppression... instead of feeling sorry for the poor sexy white boy, we could have felt empowered by someone with the guts to try and help themselves. But, alas, Beauchamp is dismissed to the sidelines in order to focus on a storyline about a love-rat (yawn) and a subplot about a gangster (snooze). Sure, the entire context of the Gay Community in 1960s New York is interesting, but this is a film about the actual people involved in the Stonewall Riots. And instead of showing us the real story, Emmerich thought his fictional character was was more interesting. I'd say that's pretty damn arrogant...
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