The Dark Heart of Stonewall

In the world of Roland Emmerich’s ahistorical drama, LGBT liberation was not merely started by a “straight-acting” white man—it could only have been started by one.

Roadside Attractions

The media has torn down Stonewall, with good reason. To make a movie about a pivotal event in LGBT history that was, by most accounts, largely driven by people of color, transgender folks, and drag queens, Roland Emmerich invented a white male protagonist who literally takes a brick out of a black man’s hand to start the uprising now celebrated in annual parades worldwide. It’s a classic “white-messiah yarn” that supposedly endorses tolerance but just ends up confirming one of the most persistent biases against (and often, among) LGBT people—the idea that the best queers are the ones who look and act “normal.”

In the face of outcry against the film’s trailer, the creators of the movie assured the public that the finished product would be more inclusive and truer to life than the marketing made it seem. Now that the full cut has screened, though, it has received some of savagest reviews of the year, and not just for its politics; the film is treacly, tedious, long, and surprisingly confusing.

But the most interesting thing about it might be that Emmerich, the screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz, and the star Jeremy Irvine weren’t exactly lying when they told people that the movie’s more self-aware and diverse than initially expected. There are lots of non-white people on screen. This is not, as it has been called, a case of erasure. It’s worse.

* * *

The protagonist is Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine), a small-town Midwestern hunk whose family disowns him when he’s caught canoodling with another guy on the football team. In June of 1969, he arrives in New York City; he’s been accepted to attend Columbia in the fall, but for the time being has no plan, no friends, no job, and no lodging. After some time sleeping in the streets, he falls in with Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), a long-haired, sometimes-in-drag Latino who leads a crew of homeless queer prostitutes. Though Danny is, as Emmerich has said, “straight acting,” he adjusts to the gay ruffian lifestyle. He starts making sassy jokes about fashion. His white t-shirt goes grey. He even turns a trick for $25, allowing the movie to contribute to the 2015 collection of sad blow-job faces.

But through it all, he still stands apart on the gay hub of Christopher Street because of where he’s come from and how he looks. On his first visit to Stonewall Tavern, the menacing bar manager Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman) tells Ray that he’d like to see more guys like Danny coming through—“All-American, clean-cut kids. Not gutter trash like you.” The attitude is shared, apparently, by Danny. He shyly refuses to dance with his new friends in wigs and ratty dresses, but when approached by the white, crisply dressed political activist Trevor (who’s queued up “A Whiter Shade of Pale” on the jukebox—maybe in a flash of cinematic self-awareness?), he gladly hits the dance floor. Cops raid Stonewall under the pretense that it’s illegal to cross dress or sell alcohol to homosexuals; Danny and Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) walk out unmolested, but the others get locked up.

The narrative from there, such as it is, has Danny pushed and pulled between the two different queer communities—the poor and marginalized just struggling to survive, and the well-off white people attempting revolution through respectability. The movie often seems to want to sympathize with the streets. At one point, Danny finds Ray curled up, blood caked on his face from being attacked by a john. Beatings are just a fact of life for people like him, he says. When Danny suggests he leave that life, Ray’s offended: “The difference between us is that I don’t have a choice.”

He’s right. Ray has been turning tricks in New York since he was 12 and his only living family members are in jail or other countries. There’s no one for him to go to for help, no built-in support system. Danny, meanwhile, has been accepted to the Ivy League and is able to get hired at a grocery store. Even the disapproval of his family back in Indiana eventually softens enough for his mom to send his scholarship papers to Columbia. To boot, the good (white, masculine) looks that caught Trevor’s eye at the bar end up paying off with a stable place to live.

Ray is violently hostile to Danny’s relationship with Trevor, whom he calls, disdainfully, “very political.” This hostility is never fully explained, and Danny seems to assume it stems from romantic jealousy. But what really seems to make Ray mad are Trevor’s attempts to organize the community, to hold meetings and pass out fliers. The street hustlers simply aren’t interested in political change. The charitable assumption would be that this is because they’re too preoccupied with survival; the uncharitable but not unsupported assumption would be that they’re just too simple. Ray repeatedly calls himself “not smart,” and if the film disagrees with him about that characterization, it never really indicates it. He’s savvy enough to navigate violence and poverty, but apparently not enough to think about fighting the conditions that lead to his violence and poverty.

But the film doesn’t take Trevor’s side, either. He takes Danny to a poorly attended meeting with the Mattachine Society leader Frank Kameny, who advocates using suits, ties, and gentle words to persuade the dominant society that “gay is good.” Coming after the affectionate portrait of the scruffy Christopher Street crew, this viewpoint is meant to seem out-of-touch or cruel. Danny only weakly objects, instead asking for advice on how to become an astronomer—a career path, Kameny says, that is not available to gay people under current law. Irvine does his best to appear enraged by this revelation.

The riot finally erupts after the police raid Stonewall again and (due to conflicts of interests very shoddily communicated in the script) arrest then free the villainous, mob-connected owner, Murphy. The neighborhood mills about watching this injustice take place, murmuring and yelling. But Danny has had a particularly rough night: Trevor cheated on him, and then Murphy kidnapped him to pimp him out. When he grabs a brick from a friend, Trevor objects that violence isn’t the way to fight. “It’s the only way,” Danny screams, breaking a window in the first act of vandalism of the night. “Gay power!”

This is no doubt meant to represent a kind of synthesis. Danny has had a brush with the worst effects of gay oppression on cold sidewalks and dingy flophouses; he has also become politically activated by the squares in suits. By bridging both worlds, he offers a way for the community to transcend. Very Hegelian, very Hollywood.

And very … queasy? Troubling? Potentially racist? Remember: Danny escapes the condition of homeless desperation he finds himself in early in the film explicitly because he’s a “straight-acting,” good-looking, middle-class white man. He gains political awareness because of those same things. He’s even victimized by Murphy because of them. So the movie not only replaces what could have been a more historically accurate instigator with a classic Hollywood pinup guy; it imagines that he’s the instigator because he looks like a classic Hollywood pinup guy. And it imagines that the brown, cross-dressing, poor people who reportedly made up the majority of Stonewall patrons could not have been.

* * *

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.