A brick appears in his hand as if by magic. This corn-fed white cis straight-passing Ken doll in a torn Gap T-shirt fresh off the bus from Indiana looks down, realizing that history has its eyes on him–not the gender-nonconforming street kids of color he just met and whose brick he just swiped. No, this is HIS moment! He throws the brick in slow motion, uttering a guttural war cry. Everything stops. Turning to his short-term fling Trevor, that anally retentive stick in the mud member of the oh-so-tired Mattachine Society, and bellows, “No, Trevor, this is the only way!” He looks at the crowd, stunned at his transgression. “GAY POWER!!! GAY POWER!!!” he hollers, flinging his hands to the sky and encouraging the masses who follow him into this chant for liberation.
GAY POWER!!! GAY POWER!!!!
And that was how the Stonewall riots began…
Wait…what’s that? Excuse me? That’s not how it happened on that fateful night in the Village? Not at all? Not one bit? That’s actually offensively incorrect, erasing the contributions of, well, basically everyone other than a cis white man?
I’m sorry–I just got swept up in the fury and the farce of watching 2015’s long shelved, hoped forgotten, and deeply buried Stonewall revisionist stinker Stonewall. Sure, director Roland Emmerich’s cinematic abomination isn’t an accurate portrayal of one of the uprisings that helped spark LGBTQ+ liberation. Shit, it’s not even a good movie! But hear me out: what Stonewall is, though, is absolutely hilarious–a spectacular failure perfect for any lover of stilted shameful dialogue worthy of a drunken dramatic reading (“I’m sorry, but I’m too MAD to love anyone right now. This…this is all so new to me, but you know, I LIKE BEING MAD!”), hammy acting, bad ideas, and even worse decisions. Stonewall’s failure is so transcendent that you just can’t help but marvel at its buffoonish brilliance.
Why-oh-why did I decide to rescue this particular putrid picture from the trash now? Well, I’ll tell you. I originally planned to watch the film last year, while in my rainbow-hued, brand-blinded corporate Pride haze. What better way to dive deeper into the dustbin of Pride shame than revive a film that was so loathed when it was released that it was canceled before it even hit theaters! Well, for whatever reason, I hesitated, recoiling at the film’s exhaustive two-plus hour runtime, and worried that Stonewall would be an excruciating viewing experience (it’s not). This year, what with corporate Pride’s rainbow extinguished due to a global pandemic (Can’t rainbow Listerine kill COVID?) and actual uprisings against racial injustice and police brutality that honor the memory of the Stonewall riots better than any phallic Chipotle burrito ever could, the time was ripe for this rotten anti-classic.
I should note that it’s not easy to even find Stonewall. This film bears such a strong stench of failure that no streaming platform seems to want anything to do with it, even during Pride! Instead, I had to buy it myself–for a whole $4.99. They almost had to pay me to watch it.
Not that its disappearance is all that surprising. When it was released, Stonewall caused a fury just based on its whiteout trailer alone, receiving a hefty finger-wagging from activists and a boycott from viewers due to Emmerich’s choice to center the film on Danny, the aforementioned Midwestern chosen one who would lead those queer kids into battle rather than, you know, any of the real life figures that were there (take your pick!). And once critics saw the film? Well, it didn’t get much better. Sporting an admirable 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Stonewall garnered headlines like Gawker’s “There Aren’t Enough Bricks in the World to Throw at Roland Emmerich’s Appalling Stonewall.” The New York Times, not exactly known for its Stonewall accuracy (once printing a correction that there was at least one lesbian at the riots), asserted, “its invention of a generic white knight who prompted the riots by hurling the first brick into a window is tantamount to stealing history from the people who made it.” Ouch. Even today, Wikipedia has some suggestions for related entries including “White savior narrative in film” and “Whitewashing in film.”
For his part, director Roland Emmerich didn’t exactly help things by viciously defending his choice to create vanilla Danny to placate the straights. As Emmerich said to Buzzfeed, “You have to understand one thing: I didn’t make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people…I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting. He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him.” Clearly, straight audiences would have been uncomfortable watching Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Stormé DeLarverie, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, or someone else–anyone else–other than Danny who has the personality of a bowl of creamed corn. Maybe next time we shouldn’t entrust films about queer liberation to the same director who made such classics as Eight Legged Freaks.
However, don’t let any of this dissuade you! This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it; it means you SHOULD! Sure, it’s problematic, but it’s also such an epic failure that it’s basically queer liberation’s version of Cats. It’s done so poorly that you’ll find yourself wondering along with the detective raiding the Stonewall Inn: “Are all of you just stupid, is this part of being gay?”
The film opens with Danny–of course, he’s the star!–gazing out the window of the bus as he arrives in the Big Apple! Ah, New York! Played by Jeremy Irvine, Danny, despite coming from Podunk, Indiana, slips in and out of the actor’s actual British accent throughout the film, particularly when he gets angry, which is frequently. Danny is a pissy boy! His surreal transition from Midwestern twang to posh in an instant is a deliciously hysterical bit of head-spinning surrealism that just adds to the camp. Wandering around Christopher Street all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Danny attracts the attention of, well, pretty much everyone, including a lecherous, drunken, weathered old queen called Queen Tooey who looks like Quentin Crisp after a particularly rough night. Pawing at Danny in a diner with what looks to be a serious case of booze-breath, Tooey leers, jokes, quips, and sings, later announcing, “I sound just fine for someone whose had a dick in his mouth all night!” Alright then…
In addition to memorable Tooey, Danny also is greeted by the steely blue eyes of this dog whose stunned and haunted glare silently mirrored my own reflection watching this crime against cinema:
Same, puppy, same.
Eventually, Danny falls into his own personal Rent daydream, making friends with a multiethnic group of queer and gender-nonconforming street kids who seem to do nothing but argue about Judy vs. Babs (“I like someone who is not going to collapse at any moment and that’s Barbra!”) all day and turn tricks all night. Mainly, they exist solely for Emmerich to insist that he did, in fact, represent the Black and Latinx kids at the Stonewall, as well as provide some local spice and flavor to bland, unseasoned Mayonnaise Danny. There’s Vladimir Alexis’s Queen Cong (yes, that’s her name), a Black femme who likes petty theft and truth-telling. There’s Orphan Annie, a greasy ginger played by Caleb Landry Jones who you might recognize as the creepy brother from Get Out and the strung-out mess Steven Burnett from Twin Peaks: The Return. And there’s two generic 1960s white boys Quiet Paul and Little Lee. All four characters have little to no interior life; they’re basically cardboard cutouts of hustlers.
The only one of this crew that’s given more than a few tossed-off one-liners is Ray or Ramona (Jonny Beauchamp), a mouthy Puerto Rican gender-nonconforming sex worker. Through the film, Ray falls madly in love with Danny despite neither of them having any romantic chemistry whatsoever. A few times in the film characters mentioned Ray’s unrequited crush and I’d be as shocked as Danny. REALLY? HIM?! This isn’t to say Danny doesn’t find love and heartbreak. He does, in the form of sullen snooze Trevor, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who slinks creepily at him at Stonewall to Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” A little on the nose if you ask me.
Notice that none of this group includes Marsha P. Johnson. She is represented in the film, but as this strange and loony specter who flits in and out of random scenes, dispersing nuggets of off-kilter wisdom as she goes. Remember to not drink the well liquor at the Stonewall! Even in the midst of the riots, she materializes in a puff of arson smoke to beat a cop with her purse. She’s like the Christopher Street Fairy Godmother to Danny’s Cinderella.
Naturally, Danny is the only character given any backstory. The only other character that, at least, gets a nod to existing other than as a foil for Danny’s coming-of-age narrative is Ray who tearfully tells Danny their sob story after being beaten by a john. Ray has no family, no home, a potential father in Sing Sing, an absent mother, a sister in foster care, and a dead grandmother in Ponce. Of course, it’s both tragic and tragically cliché.
Danny, however, gets extended flashbacks in sunny, idyllic small town Indiana. This soft filtered Anywhere, USA stands in stark contrast to dark and dingy New York City with all those QUEERS! The local pastime in Danny’s hometown? Homophobia! With his father, the football coach, and his mother, a Suzie Homemaker, Danny gets cast out of this close-minded, amber waves of grain society after being caught *gasp* sucking off the school’s star quarterback. Tsk tsk! Naughty boy! Of course, his father, like a bloodhound for same-sex desire, already had a feeling about Danny, which led him to screen a cautionary film to the class about the dangers of those homosexuals and their FLOODTIDE OF FILTH (“But all homosexuals are not passive. Public restrooms can often be a hangout for a homosexual.” Informative!). But it was too late for Danny!
After being revealed as a friend of Judy, Danny arrives at his high school to see “Faggot” scrawled–or really, neatly calligraphied–on his locker. Just look at that penmanship!
Seems a little swish to me. Takes one to know one, Danny! This is deflection if I’ve ever seen it.
Danny’s horrors didn’t end there, however, as he returns home to discover his father already packed his bags for him, including several copies of a Bob Mizer-esque beefcake mag. Thanks Dad! So thoughtful! Before scurrying away to NYC (where he was going to attend Columbia in the fall–a fact he never lets his poorer new NYC friends forget), he says goodbye to his sister (Joey King–yes, the same Joey King who played Gypsy Rose Blanchard in The Act) whose quiet rage and unnerving obsession with Andy Warhol makes me think she’s going to really enjoy Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto in a couple years.
After returning from its extensive rumination on the past (Hey! They had to pad out this over two-hour film), Stonewall proceeds to, well, meander in some semblance of a plot. Rather than a conventional narrative arc, the film seems like a collection of random scenes of Danny getting beaten down by the world that somehow all coalesce around Stonewall. I mean, everything bad happens to Danny within his first few months in the Big City. He gets assaulted by cops. Poor Danny! He gets caught up in a raid at the Stonewall Inn. Poor Danny! He sobs during his first stint as a sex worker while a client is blowing him. Poor Danny! He gets sex trafficked by Fat Tony, the mobbed-up owner of Stonewall (ok, this side plot makes no sense in the film). Arriving at the swanky hotel, he realizes his client is an enormous and monstrously grotesque trans woman who looks like J. Edgar Hoover. Nothing like a sprinkle of transphobia in a film about the Stonewall riots! Poor Danny!
What is the effect of Danny’s string of bad luck? It just makes him mmmmmmmmad! Several times in the film he makes reference to just how ANGRY and FURIOUS he is through wild eyes and gritted teeth. And sure, Danny doesn’t have as much to be mmmmmad about as his sex worker friends who all sleep in a tiny room in a down-and-out motel together, wear the same clothes every day, and scrape together what limited cash they can while enduring violence from police, self-hating clients, and a phobic society. But no matter, Danny is PISSED!
And I’ll tell you, ticked-off Danny is so funny that it never gets old. I could watch an entire film of Danny getting P.O.-ed. Oh wait, I just did. For example, Danny, on Trevor’s repeated insistence, attends a meeting of the Mattachine Society, which is strangely portrayed as a group of out-of-touch and flaccid weaklings in comparison to the virile aggression of the rioters rather than contextualized as one of the first Gay Liberation organizations. Speaking to Trevor after learning that the speaker had been booted from his astronomer job for being gay, Danny reels at the possibility of never achieving his dreams! Instead, he might have to become “a florist or a decorator”! The HORROR! He turns to Trevor and seethes, “You know, I’m getting to really feel like…like I want to break something, you know?!” as if he’s leading up to a karaoke rendition of a Limp Bizkit song. Yes, Danny, I do know. Give me something to break!
Naturally all this rage hits a boiling point the night of the riots, which explodes when, during the police raid, a dyke in a suit repeatedly begs for help. Not exactly the same as Stormé DeLarverie’s reported call to arms: “Why don’t you do something?” Thank god some men like Danny were around to help this little lady! Clearly this moment is Danny’s and Danny’s alone. And he knows it, since the day after the riot (yes, it’s only a day in the film), he leaves. Where does he go? Presumably back to Indiana, except when we see him in Indiana in the next scene he references being at Columbia for a year. Wait, what? He ditched his street urchin friends and moved Uptown! Bye bye, trash!
Perhaps most hilariously the film ends during the first Pride march in 1970 with a dedication to “the unsung heroes of the Stonewall riots.” Who? The white cis men? Now, we could get mad at this (similar to Danny, I like being mad!), but isn’t it refreshing to watch a depiction of the riots that is undoubtedly and without question 100% inaccurate? I mean, aren’t we so TIRED of fighting over the details of Stonewall? Ho hum. Every year around Pride, we go through the same old exhausted arguments as we try over and over to figure out once and for all exactly what happened that week of June 28, 1969. Did Marsha P. Johnson start the riots? Was she even there the first night or was she running uptown to tell Sylvia Rivera? Was it a brick? A shot glass? A beer bottle? A fist? A high heel flying from a paddy wagon to connect with a policeman’s fat gut?
We may never know. It’s not as if attention to detail is the primary concern during a riot. Anyway, isn’t fiction integral to queer history anyway? Nothing like filling in those gaps and details with a good story.
And I’m not alone in feeling so over the continually debated events of Stonewall. There were other riots you know! As Hugh Ryan said in an interview last week, “To be honest, I think there might be too much discussion of Stonewall in general. Riot, uprising – whatever word you want to use, Stonewall was one instance of the queer community fighting back against the routine harassment they received from the cops. As they did at Cooper’s Do-Nuts, The Black Cat, The Haven, The Snake Pit, Compton’s Cafeteria, and so many more places over the decades. The importance of Stonewall, for me, is the collective and public nature of the resistance, not necessarily what we call it or who was there on the first night, versus the second night, etc.”
And so Stonewall is grossly, unbelievably dead wrong. Does that mean it should be tossed in a dumpster forever with nobody able to witness its awful camp glory? Maybe. But then again, maybe not! But what riotous experiences do we lose with cancellation?! Aren’t we denying ourselves the enjoyment of chuckling at truly abysmal cinema? I think so.
I know, I know–some will say that by enjoying it, I’m somehow approving of all its problematic mistakes. I’m complicit! But, doesn’t cry-laughing at horrendous historical interpretations strip the power from its erasures? And please, it’s not as if Roland Emmerich’s version of the Stonewall riots stands alone. Hell, white cis gays and lesbians were already erasing the contributions of trans and gender-nonconforming people of color even a couple years later in the 70s! They did it first! Stonewall isn’t the only whitewashed and cis-washed version of the history of Stonewall or of queer liberation.
But it is certainly one of the most hilarious.