During its initial release and promotion, I wrote about Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film Stonewall and about how the film was essentially not representative of what happened during the 1969 Stonewall Riots. I wasn’t the only one to critique the film before even seeing it – the hashtag #NotMyStonewall brought up a variety of criticisms for the film and of the decision to center a cis, white gay man rather than the real life people who were present.
And for over a year, I forgot about the film. It didn’t seem to really do that well, getting only 10% from Rotten Tomatoes, and despite being friends with a large amount of LGBTQ+ folks, I honestly don’t really know anyone who actually went to see it. But a few weeks ago, I was staying at a place that didn’t have internet and because the one video rental place in town was having a special deal of renting five videos for the price of three, I decided to finally see what Stonewall (2015) was all about.
Oh boy, was that a huge mistake. The film itself is just over two hours but it was the longest and most boring two hours I’ve ever spent and I grew up going to Catholic mass on a regular basis. The actual premise of the film is interesting enough and as someone who’s incredibly interested in LGBTQ+ history, a historical retelling of the Stonewall Inn Riots is such a good idea. And the way that this film was marketed, I thought that’s what we would be getting. But it wasn’t. Not even a little.
The plot of this film is essentially that a gay kid from Indiana, named Danny, gets caught with another boy one night and is essentially disowned and thrown out by his father. Danny makes his way to New York City, where in a few months he’s due to start school at Columbia University but has to make his way until the fall semester. He gets caught up with a group of queer street kids and eventually partakes in the Stonewall Inn Riots, survival sex work, and later Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade.
On premise, this could make a fine movie but based on the marketing, I definitely thought there would be a larger focus on the actual riots rather than Danny. I mean, the tagline for the movie was “where pride began” so I definitely thought it would be more about the riots than one individual. But alas, I was wrong and we get two hours about a rather boring protagonist. The idea that the writer and director wanted the main character that more people (read: cis white gay men) of today could relate to is an insulting premise from the get go because it repeats the notion that the stories of white gay men are the only ones to hear and that people who are ‘other’ (i.e. trans, not white, etc) are somehow unrelatable.
And while there was context that provided a better understanding of what it meant to be gay leading up to and following the riots, the main point of the riots in the film seem to be boiled down to anger over how the mafia had been treating the patrons of the Inn. Even the police raids were solely painted as having to do with the fact that the mafia ran the bar rather than the criminalization of homosexuality and gender. I don’t doubt that there might have been a combination of the two but to have the police raids focus primarily on the mafia connections and have nothing to do with society’s then intense hatred of LGBTQ+ folks seems odd.
There was just enough actual history and truth to the film to make it feel like a historical retelling so it felt like everything the film presented could have been fact but knowing that it wasn’t kept me second guessing everything both in the film and what I thought I knew about LGBTQ history.
Plus, the timing of the film didn’t make sense and felt awkward. Somehow, the film starts during high school football season (which is typically during the fall), Danny ends up in New York in March, the riots take place in June, and the ending scenes takes place a year later. There’s zero semblance of time moving between any of the scenes so what appears to be just a couple days to the audience turns out to be a few weeks and even a few months. I was repeatedly confused over when different scenes were taking place and it leads to the plot feeling unbelievably rushed and the relationships between the characters awkward and unrealistic.
As if that wasn’t enough, writing and characters were both underdeveloped and repeatedly fell flat. The fact that Marsha P. Johnson was played by a cis man was incredibly insulting and very frustrating and the dialogue and interactions between characters was always super weird. So many of the LGBTQ characters felt like some weird and heightened stereotype and there were some moments where the way that the actors were speaking felt forced and extremely awkward.
Overall, this film gets multiple thumbs down from me and was the biggest waste of two hours that I had spent in 2016 (which honestly, says a whole lot based on how awful last year was). The film tried and failed to be a historical retelling of an important part of LGBTQ history within the United States and ends up feeling more like some weird fanfic with terrible acting. It makes me incredibly sad to think that this film might have been someone’s only interaction with the history of the Stonewall Inn Riots because it was such a disservice to the people who were there and impacted most by homophobia, transphobia, classism, and more.
Instead of seeing this film, I definitely recommend seeing the documentary Major! and watching the trailer for the upcoming film, Happy Birthday Marsha!. I also recommend watching the documentaries Before Stonewall and After Stonewall to get a better understanding of the time leading up to the riots and what happened afterwards. Plus, there are books like The Gay Revolution by Lillian Faderman and the memoir When We Rise by Cleve Jones that provide a better and actually accurate understanding of the same sort of time frame as Stonewall (2015).