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What’s weird is that all along, Jon Robin Baitz’s script is very vocal about the idea that race and privilege have real-world effects. At one point, Ray even accuses Danny of having gone “slumming” for “fun.” The world of this movie is not colorblind. It’s playing with identity and power, but to what end?
Emmerich has used the “Trojan Horse” defense to talk about the creation of Danny’s character; to get straight people to connect to the movie, it needs a “conventional” star. He has also defended it on personal grounds: “As a director you have to put yourself in your movies, and I’m white and gay.”
Those are not great reasons to contrive a script that places Marsha P. Johnson, the drag queen who many people say began the uprising, in another part of town when the first brick is thrown. But they’re at least understandable as concessions to a risk-adverse film industry. It would be one thing for the movie to take what other critics have called the Forrest Gump approach, and just have Danny be an omnipresent witness to history. Or perhaps he could have been the inexplicably Chosen One who just happened to be Ken Doll-esque, like so many Chosen Ones in movies previously.
What I can’t quite figure out is why the movie would make the white gay hero the leader of the uprising, and to make his leadership the direct result of his race, class, and masculine affect. That’s so button-pushing, so open to accusations of flat-out white supremacy, that one starts to spin conspiracy theories. Stonewall never feels real; it was shot in Montreal, and bathes the entire hokey-looking city in lovely, golden-hour light for many of the scenes. Maybe, just maybe, this is all meant to be a parody of how Hollywood has time and again rewritten white-male saviors into history.
Or maybe it’s meant to show that privilege is so powerful that the world is more easily changed by those that possess it. The problem with that, though, is that the world, on this point, does not back the idea up. There was no real-life Danny Winters. It’s obvious who benefits by pretending otherwise.
Or maybe it’s just as bad as it looks.
The morning after the riot (while there were multiple nights of it in fact, there appears to be only one in the movie), Ray tells Danny that “everything’s changed” and they can make a life together. Throughout the film, Danny has subtly rebuffed his romantic advances, a fact that many critics have pointed out plays into the worst tendencies of mainstream gay culture today to see “femmes” and people of color as undesirable. Now, he makes his disgust explicit. “I can’t love you,” Danny says, before adding an explanation so weak the people in my theater broke into laughter: “I’m too mad to love anyone right now.”
A year later, the first gay pride parade is held uptown. Danny has finished his freshman courses at Columbia and visited home, wearing a swanky city-boy jacket and bonding lovingly with his sister and mother. They come to watch the parade, where Danny reunites with the Christopher Street kids. Ray’s there, but we don’t learn what he’s been up to. The default assumption would be that he’s still broke, prostituting, and getting regularly beaten up. The film doesn’t seem to care whether he gets a happy ending.