“Stonewall” is a bit of a head-scratcher. A fictional account of the 1969 Stonewall riots — a series of events that subsequently triggered the gay rights movement in America — it’s directed by Hollywood’s resident disaster-movie specialist, Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow”).

Emmerich’s depiction of the riots (the movie shows only one of them) has an impressive sense of urgency, but it’s hard to shift the feeling that the vicious cops beating up men and boys on the street are like aliens, and the gays are citizens of Earth fighting to reclaim the planet from intergalactic predators. Despite its human rights message, “Stonewall” is heavy-handed and action-centric. The LGBT community and its issues are divided into black and white, good and evil. Nuanced? Not in the least. Another director from the field — Gus Van Sant for example — may have chosen to make a film much more personal and complex.

Still, Emmerich does get his point across: In New York during the late 1960s, gay rights was something people lived and died for, if not on the same structured scale as the civil rights movement.

Run Time 129 mins
Language English

Only 50 years ago, a gay person could be stopped on the street and pummelled with police truncheons. They often couldn’t get apartment leases and were shut out of jobs. They were treated as second-class citizens, and it’s painful to see such disgraceful discrimination still occurs today, particularly with immigrants and minorities. “Stonewall” reminds us that some things haven’t changed much. Random police frisking, prejudiced harassment and outright violence — it’s all far from being a piece of history. With that in mind, it’s a good time to see “Stonewall,” if only to confirm the fragility of human rights and how far society has come, at least within the LGBT community.

Written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Jon Robin Baitz, “Stonewall” follows the old formula of getting a starry-eyed young innocent to describe the bigger picture. In this case, the innocent is fresh-out-of-Indiana, 18-year old Danny (Jeremy Irvine) who rolls into Manhattan’s famed Christopher Street after being kicked out of his parents’ house when they found out he was gay.

Danny has ambivalent feelings about his sexuality. On the one hand, he feels like he has nothing to be ashamed of, on the other hand, he had been persecuted in his hometown and so is unwilling to reveal too much about himself. The ambivalence keeps Danny from nurturing a relationship with Ray (Jonny Beauchamp, in a powerhouse performance) who immediately welcomes him to the community and offers to show him the ropes.

In the U.S., Emmerich’s film caused a firestorm of criticism, mostly from the LGBT community for “whitewashing history,” according to CNN and other news sources. The main bone of contention was the protagonist — the white, blonde Danny. It’s his gaze and his words that propel the narrative and, significantly, Danny is the one to throw the symbolic first brick into a bar, an action that is depicted as triggering the Stonewall riots which, in turn, bring about the gay revolution. There’s been much online debate about that brick — many say that it was an African-American transgender woman named Marsha Johnson who threw it. (Before her death in 1992, Johnson had apparently denied it). Others say there’s no telling how the riots started.

Ultimately though, it seems almost OK to have Danny on the pitcher’s mound since the Stonewall riots were not about race but the LGBT’s struggle for acceptance and equal rights. By all accounts there were plenty of white males in the riots, and the legendary Stonewall Inn was crammed six to a room with runaway teens like Danny. When it came to facing the police as a gay man, Danny’s skin color did him no favors. That, at least, is something “Stonewall” got right.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.