White Lies

Roland Emmerich, Stonewall, 2015, color, sound, 129 minutes.

A CAMPAIGN IS UNDERWAY, so the New York Times reported on Monday, to create a national park recognizing the Stonewall uprising of June 1969. As it happens, I read that article while en route to a screening of another commemoration of the legendary queer insurgency: Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall, a ghastly project that places a lily-white muscle twink from Indiana as the tour guide for that pivotal event, with various trans characters and street queens of color assuming secondary roles and providing emotional succor to the Aryan beauty. The casting and story line notoriously ignited another LGBTQ intifada—if only on the spleen-soaked battlefields of social media—in August after outraged viewers of the film’s trailer called for a boycott. While insisting on the wholesale condemnation of any cultural product after having seen only a promo spot has never struck me as a savvy tactic, I’ll admit that many of Stonewall’s political failings are borne out in that roughly two-and-a-half-minute clip. What the trailer does not adequately prepare you for, however, are the movie’s stupefying mise-en-scène and dialogue crimes.

Emmerich’s film is not the first bad docudrama of the rebellion at 53 Christopher Street that ushered in the modern gay rights movement: Twenty years ago, Nigel Finch’s Stonewall was released to similar complaints about its use of a white hayseed hunk as the main protagonist, ministered to and schooled by a multiracial group of gender nonconformists. Yet Stonewall ’95, inspired by Martin Duberman’s essential 1993 oral history of the lavender revolt, at least achieved some semblance of authenticity by virtue of being shot in the West Village and other Manhattan locations. Emmerich’s Stonewall, in contrast, was shot in Montreal, its ersatz Sheridan Square seemingly constructed of discarded tubs of Boy Butter. The dominant hue of the film is a sickly yellow, a shade that lies somewhere on the spectrum between that of the cheese curds ladled on poutine and tearoom backsplash.

Best-known as the director of such bloated spectacles as Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998), and The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Emmerich clearly struggles when working with a budget of less than $20 million. That’s not to say, though, that Stonewall is without special effects, namely inadvertent time travel. More than one of the songs—including the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” the film’s anthem—that Danny (Jeremy Irvine, a vanilla nonentity), our Hoosier hero, and his new friends dance to at the Mob-controlled homo hangout were released several years after 1969. “Let’s do this,” says Seymour Pine (Matt Craven), the NYPD morals inspector who led the raid on the Stonewall Inn—and a seeming clairvoyant with knowledge of bro catchphrases that wouldn’t become popular until decades later.

Stonewall was written by Jon Robin Baitz, who, like Emmerich, is openly gay—a detail that’s salient only insofar as it offers further proof, as if any were needed, that same-sexers are sometimes the most egregious trivializers of queer history and the homosexual agenda. “I’m too mad to love anybody right now,” cries newly militant, brick-hurling Danny to Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), who exists in the film solely to weep after being spurned by the midwesterner and who appears to be partly inspired by Sylvia Rivera, a real-life habitué of Stonewall and later a cofounder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Too besotted by this corn-fed, bubble-butt cicerone, Emmerich’s film can stir only this response: Mary, please.

Stonewall opens September 25.