Audiences coming to Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall expecting a bombastic, ostentatious reenactment of the several nights of riotous protests that pitted members of the LGBT community against police officers at the Stonewall Inn—a treatment of the events worthy of the director of such set piece-heavy titles as Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow—will be disappointed to find instead a cautious, almost neutered film, one that ultimately fails to amplify the voice of its subject. Reductive and diminishing in its chronicling of the political and social climate leading to the eventual uprising (the Mattachine Society is almost offensively trivialized in the service of aligning audiences with the film’s protagonists), Stonewall still mostly succeeds as a PSA about gay history for those who know nothing about it. But queerness has never looked so bland, and for a film about a sexual revolution, pleasurable sex is conspicuously absent: Indeed, most of the shockingly few sex scenes result in the protagonist, the white, all-American, conspicuously attractive Danny (Jeremy Irvine), so ashamed by his apparent debasement—he briefly resorts to tricking for cash—that he’s literally brought to tears while having his dick sucked.
Having been kicked out of his family home after being discovered going down on a male classmate, Danny makes his way from Indiana to New York City, where he’s scheduled to begin his freshman year at Columbia University in the fall. Upon arrival, he immediately heads downtown to Christopher Street (impressively recreated as a detailed, almost-to-scale set where most of the film’s action is staged) and falls in, somewhat schematically, with a ragtag group of homeless queer youth. And these characters are what provide an otherwise mindless story with some dignity, standing in as they do for the actual heroes of the revolution being depicted. Stonewall is ultimately a coming-of-age story disguised as a celebration of those who fought for gay rights when homosexuality was still illegal and gay bars were raided almost nightly by a police force hell-bent on preventing LGBT people from developing a community; when Danny throws the first brick at the riots, the moment is played less as a historical flashpoint than as a crucial moment in his character arc, a triumph only over his own personal demons.
Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), a young trans Puerto Rican who becomes Danny’s friend and de facto guide through the radical queer underbelly of NYC, is Stonewall’s true center. He’s by turns tragic and hopeful, vulnerable and powerful, embodying the spirit that originally moved LGBT people to assert their rights by any means necessary. But the fact that Ray is drawn in the service of Danny’s story, and not the other way around, is a misstep that costs the film its ultimate claim for the audience’s heart. Stonewall is a cartoon retelling of a very real revolution, a depiction that avoids nuance at all costs and, at its worst, dangerously repackages the queer experience using language invented by those originally deployed to break it apart. People of color and trans people have always been relegated to the sidelines of the mainstream conversation about gay rights, and in Stonewall as in life, the white gay male narrative has been deemed the most palatable queer story for mass consumption. Danny’s fate is never truly in jeopardy in the same way as Ray’s will always be, and the film quietly deflects any responsibility to assert that there are other factors at play in his struggle aside from his queerness.
But for all its caricatures and tip-toeing, an early scene in Stonewall depicting a raid of a cruising area—during which Danny is beaten and almost raped by two police officers simply for being a “faggot”—is a haunting nod toward the contemporary American context in which the film has been produced. Power dynamics between those with authority and the population they are consigned to protect is always complicated by prejudice, and in this one scene, at least, Danny briefly succeeds at representing all of those who’ve been stripped of a voice and then, with nothing left to lose, made to scream.