Review: Beware of dirty old men in Roland Emmerich’s fantasy ‘Stonewall’

History takes a backseat to self-hatred and bad screenwriting
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There are two positive things to report about Roland Emmerich’s “Stonewall.”

The first is that relatively unknown cinematographer Markus Förderer (“I Origins”) has made sure that this “historical drama” is the most beautifully shot and lit Emmerich film to date.  He may have gone slightly overboard with the golden sunset backlight here or there, but considering how repetitive some of the sets are Förderer makes sure “Stonewall” is always visually appealing to look at.

The second is the performance of Johnny Beaucamp as Ray, the street kid who sells himself to make ends meet and would likely identify today as genderfluid.  Beaucamp’s portrayal is simply the most authentic performance in the film and even more impressive when you consider he also played a transgender character on “Penny Dreadful” season two this past spring.  The only thing the two roles have in common is the fact both begin as prostitutes (or close to it).  Granted, Beaucamp isn’t going to be up for any year-end awards, but his work here demonstrates that he’s a unique talent that deserves better material than this.

As for the rest of the film, forgive us as we take a moment to ponder where to start because “Stonewall” is such a misfire it will inspire college thesis papers for years to come.

Emmerich and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz’s well-intentioned fictional story is centered on the Stonewall riots that began on June 28, 1969 outside the Stonewall bar on Christopher St. in New York City.  The riots are often considered a tipping point in gay rights history, a night when gay men and women fought back against the oppression of the local police force who had harassed their community for decades. The event spawned the first gay pride parades in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco a year later.

In this era, Emmerich and Baitz decide to tell the tale of a fresh-faced Indiana boy, Danny (Jeremy Irvine), who has moved to the big city after being kicked out of his conservative family’s home.  Danny may be a cute18-year-old who would have thousands of Instagram followers in this day and age, but you can see the filmmakers’ wheels spinning as they immediately introduce him to a bunch of ethnically diverse and mostly feminine hustlers to provide some legitimacy to their tale.  History notes that while there were certainly some buff, white gay men who were part of the Stonewall riots it was the drag queens and street kids that incited it.

Danny’s story actually begins with flashbacks to his life in Small Town U.S.A. where he is engaging in what constitutes a secret affair with the quarterback of the high school football team (Karl Glusman).  Before it gets too bogged down in plot points you immediately realize the whole community will find out within the next 10 minutes, Danny will be heartbroken and his father, the coach of said football team, will probably disown him.  It’s a familiar tale for anyone who seen their share of gay coming out stories and it’s actually the one time in the film Emmerich’s glossy style is sort of engaging.  Throw in Förderer’s aforementioned golden haze and it’s almost as though Michael Bay was behind the camera.  That is until Baitz constructs the most ludicrous sequence for Danny to be kicked out of town.

The present day storyline’s aren’t any better. Danny goes through every “been there, done that” plot point you’ve seen or read in a young man’s coming out story.  He first new friend (in this case Ray) falls in love with him, but he’ll never reciprocate those feelings.  He gets seduced by the older, but not that much older man (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who eventually dumps him for another, younger guy (although once you meet his replacement you never buy it for a second).  He’s forced to hustle for money and is emotionally devastated afterward.  Oh, and creepy old men constantly harass him for sex.

Wait, what?

Yes, One of the film’s more bizarre threads is that with one notable exception almost every man in the movie over the age of thirty is either a cheat (Meyers’ character), a conservative square or as nasty as the Crypt Keeper.  In fact, one of the first scenes in the picture finds Danny, already nervous about his new surroundings, finishing a mean at a Greenwich Village dinner. Before he knows it he’s being almost accosted by an unattractive, slimy looking old queen (Richard Jutras) which is played with the subtly of a bad horror movie.  The third act then features a completely unnecessary sidebar where Danny is basically forced to hustle for a rich, seventy-ish secret crossdresser right before the climactic riot sequence.  The purpose of both scenes is to chronicle Danny’s repulsion and for a community that has its issues with ageism is insanely backward thinking considering the picture is supposed to be about the liberation of a community (we’re spotting at trend). In fact, we’re admittedly curious how the almost 60-year-old and longtime out director could have justified these moments to himself.  They border on self-hatred (for someone behind-the-scenes, at least).

Where the film really goes off the rails is in the depiction of the riot itself.  While there are numerous accounts to the events that night, the general consensus is that legendary drag queen and transgender activist Martha P. Johnson threw the first brick that sparked the riot.  Johnson is played by Otoja Abit in the picture, but not only does she not throw the first brick, Emmerich and Baitz place her fleeing the scene in a taxi cab while handcuffed to corrupt Stonewall bar owner Ed Murphy (Ron Pearlman) like they are in the middle of a keystone cops comedy short.  Eventually Johnson turns the tables on Murphy, but that hardly makes up for the fact that, of course, Danny throws the brick in the movie.

Yes, Emmerich and Baitz have concocted a true fantasy.  Not only does Danny become the film’s radical poster boy, he’s also the first to call out “Gay power!” and rouse up all the other “homosexuals” against the police. The filmmakers do their due diligence by having Danny’s minority friends follow him into this act of civil disobedience, but how regressive to make him the flag bearer for the cause, a fictional white character that will look good on a movie poster if nothing else.

Creative license is a given when making a movie about an important historical event.  If not, you’re left with just a staid reenactment that may not convey the day’s true significance. Truth be told, “Stonewall” oversteps those liberties and is an insult to the men and women who were actually there on that fateful night.  Sure, neither you, the filmmakers or I witnessed it with our own eyes, but history tells us the heroes of the Stonewall riots deserved a movie better than this.

Grade: C-

“Stonewall” opens in limited release on Friday.

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With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios, has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times and co-founded HitFix, Inc. serving as its first Editor-in-Chief and President. Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.
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Awards Campaign provides commentary and insight on the movie industry. It's also the current online home of Gregory Ellwood, an industry veteran who has covered the movie business and Oscar campaigns for over a decade. For more information including partnerships and advertising opportunities please E-mail info@awardscampaign.com.