Yesterday, I saw “Stonewall” the controversial new film about the 1969 riots in New York City’s Greenwich Village that sparked the Gay Rights movement. Some members of the LGBTQ community originally become upset last month when the trailer was released and it seemed to suggest the new film featured a hunky, masculine, white, young man as the instigator for the riot by throwing the first brick through the bar’s windows that fateful summer night. The trailer also seemed to be lacking in lesbian, trans and femme identified characters as well as any queer people of color…or, at least not enough to suit some people’s tastes. Matters weren’t helped when out gay director Roland Emmerich best known for schlocky pop corn movies like Independence Day, The Patriot and 2012, began defending the film and pointed out he always puts himself in his movies, and naturally he’s going to tell the story from the point of view of a gay white man.
Cue outraged screams of disapproval from the trans community, not to mention from queer people of color, lesbians, and millions of amateur Stonewall historians.
It doesn’t help matters that the events of Stonewall are widely contested by the people who claim to have been there. Or the fact that over the years FAR more people than it’s humanly possible to FIT into the Stonewall claim to have been there and witnessed it all. Or, the sad fact that many of the veterans perished in the first waves of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s so many valuable witnesses were lost before all the stories could be told. OR, the fact that many of the Stonewall participants were disenfranchised, poor, and kids of the street; many of them perished or vanished from the scene. The result is a lot of different stories told by a lot of different people: we have angry trans activists claiming Stonewall was largely fueled by trans people; drag queens claiming it was drag queens; lesbians claiming it was fueled by angry dykes; etc. There are some who go so far to suggest it was all mad as hell trans women of color street prostitutes who ran the whole thing without a gay white man anywhere to be found!
It’s all rather ridiculous, this obsessive jockeying for a place at the Stonewall dinner table. By all accounts, Stonewall was a mixed bag of everything under the sun. And, many people of today fail to understand that gay culture was radically different 50 years ago. You were butch or you were femme. Or, “Gay” or “Trade” meaning you were somewhat out or only had sex with the same sex for “fun” but didn’t identify as gay or live the “lifestyle”. ” Queen” was a rather vague term for anyone not butch or masculine; it didn’t necessarily mean a “drag queen” as we know it today. “Trans” was not really an identity option in 1969; actual transgender people as we know them now were few and far between. If anyone said the word “trans” it was just short for “tranny” which in turn was short for transvestite. Many of the people who later identified as being trans would have called themselves queens, if they were femme identified. Gender expression was vague primarily for legal reasons. If you were caught wearing too many garments identified as belonging to the opposite gender, you could be arrested.
So, what the fuck is the deal with Stonewall: The Major Motion Picture? Is it a gross distortion and a disaster of the greatest magnitude, or is it a film worth checking out?
The answer is: Yes to all of the above!
And, I’m gonna list them all out for ya!
1) Yes, the lead character is a young, white, masculine, handsome youth new to the big city and fresh off the bus from Hooterville. He’s ably and pensively portrayed by British actor Jeremy Irvine probably best known in the US as the lead in Spielberg’s movie version of War Horse. Mr. Irvine does a fine job; his hunky, adorable, cisgendered masculinity shouldn’t be held against him. He can’t help being British.
2) But, the secondary lead character is young, presumably and vaguely Latino-esque, and femme, a spunky street hustler named “Ray”…who naturally falls into unreciprocated love with Hooterville Boy who prefers his own kind. Ray is excellently performed by newcomer Jonny Beauchamp who does a terrific job with a role that’s rather predictably written. This character SHOULD have been the main character of the film.
3) Ray is the head hustler in his own little tribe of “Dead End Kids”, fellow hustlers of all sizes, colors and degrees of gender expression who all crash in the same small dingy room in a pay by the night hotel. The Kids are adorable though over accessorized and gimmicky. It’s like the costume designer just got off working on a production of “Hair” and decided to just reuse the same bag of cheap scarves, vests, kooky hats and beads all purchased from whatever Montreal (the shooting location for “Stonewall”) has for its version of Value Village or Redlight. The look is a bit much…like your Aunt Franny who leaves the house with one too many bracelets on or too much Gucci clashing with the Pucci.
4) The relationship between Hooterville Boy and Ray is the primary one of the film and the most interesting. Naturally, it doesn’t go anywhere (oops…Spoiler!) because you can’t have a Butch man ending up with a Femme man in a film. It upsets Roland Emmerich’s natural Teutonic order of things.
5) There are a handful of REAL people in the film, meaning characters representing actual folks who took part in the Stonewall riots including Ron “Hellboy” Perlman as Ed Murphy, the notorious bouncer at the Stonewall who had a shady past and is presented as a villain in this film; Matt Craven as Seymour Pine, the police inspector who led the raid on the Stonewall, who is presented very positively in the film as being anti-Mob (the Mafia owned the Stonewall and many other gay bars in NYC and were famous for serving watered down booze in dirty glasses and shaking down their customers) and pro-gay; and most vibrantly of all, Otoja Abit as Marsha P. Johnson, the flamboyant and much beloved queen who became a major symbol of Stonewall and a dedicated activist for gay rights and an advocate for trans people, street youth, sex workers, and as a community organizer for ACT-UP. The filmmakers very deliberately released a clip from the film featuring this character earlier this month to combat the anger over the trailer and demonstrate that trans people of color WERE represented in the film, but to be honest, it’s not a huge role. Marsha pops up here and there through out the film as “color” but isn’t a major character. Another famous (and controversial) Stonewall queen, Sylvia Rivera is NOT featured at all in the film, though it could be speculated that the Ray character is a stand in for the real life Rivera.
6) The main guts of the story, Hooterville Boy surviving in New York with the aid of Ray and his Merry Band of Gap Models is actually a compelling enough tale despite some of the melodrama added. Hooterville embarks on a relationship with a clean cut Mattachine Society member played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers which doesn’t go down well with the jealous Ray; and there’s also some creepy story involving Perlman’s character snatching hot young hustlers like Hooterville off the street to serve up to rich old perverts as fodder for their filthy desires. And, I have to say that this film is VERY anti-sex worker and very deliberately portrays most of the sex in the film as degenerate and nasty. It’s all gross middle aged/old men picking up hustlers for furtive blow jobs in alleys or weird, J. Edgar Hoover in a frock, dress up sex in hotels while Hooterville has a pissy look on his face. The only time Hoots is happy sex-wise is while having vanilla, sheet covered, British boy, fudge packing with Jonathan Rhys Meyers aka Mattachine Boy. It’s a snooze.
7) There’s like two lesbians in this movie. We don’t see the first one until 50 minutes into the movie and both appearances by lesbian characters are brief. Sorry, dyke ladies…Herr Emmerich isn’t a dyke lady so he’s not interested in putting you into his movie.
8) INSTEAD, we spend like a quarter of the movie IN FUCKING HOOTERVILLE INDIANA exploring our Hero (aka Hooterville Boy) and his backstory. Which is highly predictable and unoriginal and boring and not at all necessary to the film and REALLY needs to be cut out because if they did, they might have some room for a REAL lesbian character in the film. Instead, we get Hooterville’s sad love for the high school quarterback which involves blow jobs in a Chevy down by the Levee. Naturally, they get caught and since Hooterville Boy’s dad is…get this…the HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL COACH, (and hot) who’s really pissed his son has corrupted his star player, our Hero gets kicked out of the house/Hooterville/the Fucking State of Indiana. Mom is a blandly oppressed tool so Hooterville Boy only has a spunky, forward thinking sister to cheer him on and while Spunky Sister is cute while being highly anachronistic, she’s also stuck wearing a cheap, nasty wig that clearly shows the wig base instead of her scalp in over the head shots. Sad.
9) Again, the main story isn’t bad…the backstory is dreadful and the melodramatic shit involving the Mob, the cops and fat old pervs dressed like J. Edgar Hoover on a holiday in the Catskills is not necessary. Jon Robin Baitz is a tv, film and theater writer with skills and good credits like the somewhat overrated play “Other Desert Cities” and the somewhat beloved and overrated tv soap opera “Brothers & Sisters” but he’s a mess here.
10) After way too much with J. Edgar Hoover in a cocktail dress and way too much time in Fucking Indiana, we finally get to The Big Day, June 28, 1969 and…the riot itself is actually nicely shot. It’s exciting and vibrant and emotionally compelling…until the bullshit kicks in. Like Marsha P. and Ed Murphy being handcuffed together and running down the street to discover a leather/kink bar with a handy set of tools….or, the rather shocking lack of women involved…or, the fact that they do actually have Hooterville Boy throw the first brick, which isn’t at all necessary for the story. It would have been fine to have Ray throw the brick or Vladimir Alexis as “Cong” the African American queen who’s a member of the Tribe and a major supporting character. But, no….Oberfuhrer Emmerich HAS to have Honky Hunk Boy throw that brick to appease his inner white male studly awesomeness and to help encourage other white male studs show up to the local Cineplex and lay down $12.50 to share the “Stonewall: The Motion Picture Experience”. It’s so dumb.
11) Just when you think the movie is done, (the riot has happened though we only see the FIRST day of the Stonewall riots which went on for about a week, off and on), the filmmakers decided it’s VITAL that we…
GO BACK TO FUCKING INDIANA TO WRAP UP THAT STUPID STORY LINE WE DON’T CARE ABOUT!
Why we need to go back to see the Old Closet Case Boyfriend, Cough Drop Useless Mom, Sister with the Bad Wig and Uptight but Highly Fuckable Coach Dad….I don’t really know. To add extra time to the film? A vital need to revisit that Bad Wig? A queer obsession with Quebec standing in for Indiana?
12) Cut to a year after the Riot and the first parade which is a badly shot affair with most of our cast prancing around in front of green screens. Then, we get a ton of unnecessary “What Happened Next?” text apparently designed to educate their hoped for audience, clueless straights who know nothing about Stonewall.
It’s a tad insulting.
I didn’t hate this film but it did frequently infuriate me…but mostly for the bad storytelling and excessive love for bland backstories set in Fucking Indiana. It’s full of cliché and some dumb stereotyping. Emmerich and Baitz seem to have it in for lesbians, non-monogamous sex, expensive wigs and Ron Perlman. It does feature some nice acting from the two main actors and that central relationship is an interesting one. The film does have its charms.
But, if you think the film should be populated by an army of perfectly coiffed modern divas like RuPaul or Willam at the Stonewall barricades, or Laverne Cox and an army of powerful Trans Warriors, then you’re not really being realistic either. HOWEVER, male born members of the community on the femme side of the spectrum, ARE very well represented in this film. It just may not be the ones you want in the roles you want and not in a contemporary context of “queens”, “trans” or even “queer” but a rather vague sense of femme identified gender queerness appropriate for the era.
Lesbians do have something to bitch about though.
“Stonewall” opens in select cities, Friday September 24, 2015 including an exclusive engagement at SIFF’s Egyptian Cinema on Capital Hill. Go here for tickets.