Sometimes a director becomes so closely associated with a certain style of film that everything he does bears certain trademarks. Roland Emmerich is by most accounts a director who specializes in disaster movies. If something needs to get blowed up real good, like the White House or the entire damn planet, then he’s your guy. Emmerich has dabbled outside of that comfort zone exactly once with the conspiracy-laden Shakespeare film Anonymous, which might as well have handed out tinfoil hats to the audience. It was just bad enough to have you clamoring for him to make a “2012” sequel or something, but that was nothing compared to the gay rights drama, “Stonewall”, which lends all new meaning to the phrase “Roland Emmerich disaster movie”.
Sometimes a movie is so utterly terrible that it’s physically and emotionally daunting, not just to sit through, but to know you can’t just forget about it. “Stonewall” is one of those movies. It gets so much wrong that there has to have been some kind of concerted effort for it to be that way. Maybe this is an Emmerich plot to make us miss his blockbuster films just a little bit more? That’s a conspiracy only Emmerich himself could appreciate. The openly gay Emmerich reimagines the Stonewall riots, the lit fuse of the modern gay rights movement, as just another story of a naive Midwestern white kid looking to fit in with an unfamiliar culture. So this isn’t really even a story about Stonewall or the people who fought and bled there, or its impact on the fight for gay rights today.
It’s no wonder gay rights activists have been ripping the film up and down, as it ignores the reality in favor of a fiction conjured up in screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz’s brain. The always-bland Jeremy Irvine blends into the scenery as Danny Winters (even his name is milky white), a good ol’ boy from a small football lovin’ churchgoin’ town, the kind of place that looks at gays as unnatural. They even show classes about it in school. When Danny is caught in a compromising position with the star quarterback, already a freaking cliché, he leaves home for New York, Greenwich Village to be precise. There the clean-cut kid falls in with a multi-cultural band of gay prostitutes and drag queens, struggling to survive on the streets in the only way they can. It’s a tough reality that Baitz and Emmerich embrace only far enough to give the story a gritty “Rent”-style quality. The denizens of Christopher Street turn out to be far more interesting than Danny, but that’s not saying much. They at least have some personality to speak of, especially the feisty and vulnerable Ray (Jonny Beauchamp) the group’s de facto leader and someone who falls in love with Danny early on. But Danny is being pulled into the arms of Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an activist promoting social change through non-violent means.
That Danny is so vanilla only makes “Stonewall” more of an insult, because the story is mostly focused on his coming to grips with who he is. A clunker of a screenplay makes this personal journey as formulaic as possible, with every turn telegraphed so far in advance they should have blinkers on. For too long the idea of fighting back against the system is casually mentioned but never once do we feel these people are truly invested in creating change. That makes their sudden fervor when the riots erupt a little tough to swallow, and the atrocious screenplay full of clunky proclamations doesn’t do anyone any favors.
In between fist pumps, shouts of “gay power!!”, and Danny’s groan-worthy remark that he’s “too angry to love anyone right now”, “Stonewall” makes it clear that the real life story isn’t that interesting. Or at least it’s not interesting enough to make a movie unless it has someone like Danny at the center, literally throwing the first brick through the Stonewall Inn’s window. Somehow his journey of personal discovery is more important than one of the seminal moments in gay rights history. Somehow his story is made to seem more relevant than the few actual figures the story includes, such as shady Stonewall Inn manager Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman), who was paid by wealthy clientele to pimp out the gay street kids. Or drag queen Marsha P. Johnson (Otoja Abit), one of the riot’s true leaders and a continued force in the fight. These characters appear but have little impact overall even though their stories are far more interesting, and obviously more genuine, than Danny’s.
How can a movie this tone deaf arrive at a time when movies about the LGBT community are better than they have ever been? “Stonewall” marks a disturbing step backwards and don’t be surprised if there are riots to destroy every single copy of it.