Christopher Street, 1969. A magical place of street hustlers and outre personalities, a paradise where all drugs basically fulfill the same purpose as MDMA and except for the times when police violently assault the gay community, everything is constantly bathed in magic-hour sunlight and all is basically well.
To take potshots at Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall is to argue that form is of more value than intention. But however grand-intentioned it was for Emmerich to use his disaster-movie clout to get a movie about an anti-police riot made and released (however limited) in today’s fraught cultural climate, that only matters so much when the resulting film’s topical and cinematic myopia does more harm than good. More clearly, the film frames a riot that resulted from a complex mixture of mob exploitation, queer oppression, and police abuse as the background for a coming-of-age story about a beautiful and hairless young man who wants to forgive his dad.
That young man is Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine), a fictional figure who Emmerich poses as the avatar through which New York City can be introduced, as a libertine haven where gay men can be themselves, if only in certain locations. In flashback, the hyper-sincere story of how Danny came to leave his small middle American town plays out: a hunky fellow football player, a paranoid homophobe of a father, the precocious younger sister (Joey King) whose progressive beliefs push against the small town’s ignorance. It is indeed as grating as it sounds; once again, sentiment only goes so far. These scenes aspire to a timeless poignance, but are assembled from such a wide pastiche of cliches that Stonewall gets harder and harder to take seriously, even as it should be.
It doesn’t help that, yes, the film’s version of a queer paradise is for the most part overwhelmingly white and masculine, with a handful of clearly designated sidekick types, particularly Ray (Jonny Beauchamp, the film’s highlight), the young hustler who introduces Danny to the neighborhood. Ray and Danny flirt and fight and flirt and fight continuously throughout, sometimes within just a few short minutes of the last, but their relationship is a functional microcosm of why Stonewall falters far more often than it succeeds.
Instead of investigating either stock type with any real depth, the film holds every character as a proxy for an argument and little else. Again, Beauchamp brings some emotional gravitas to Ray, but the film treats the more hard-lived and struggling of the pair as the tragic ideal that the community can one day overcome by getting acceptable jobs. (Paradoxically, the film condemns an older hunk Danny falls for as being full of empty politics and words until the real revolution starts, but also has a lot of strong stances on the shame of things like sex work or riots that get too out of hand.) Stonewall is about a more vicious and repressive old America, definitely the more unpleasant of the film’s many tonal approaches, but it at least feels more honest than the candy-colored Disney sex heaven that the film tries on at other points.
And that’s the dilemma at hand with Stonewall. It’s a high school play-ready version of the riots, a version more focused on outside characters and related inspiring lessons than even the riots themselves (they take up a shockingly small amount of the film’s two-plus hours), and wears the rosest-colored glasses about the dynamics of the era in which it took place. Stonewall was a massive cultural event, but Emmerich ultimately opts for an approach akin to the “bigger is better” excess of the films on which he’s made his name. And not all the trafficking subplots and police interdepartmental intrigue cutaways and precocious movie kids in the world can give the film the gravity it aims for, and ultimately fails to find.