Upon its release in 2015 Rolland Emmerich’s Stonewall was pretty well critically savaged for a few reasons, now, a year later I’d thought I’d give it a go being somewhat distanced from the ‘hype’ and as it has appeared on Netflix.
Following some fairly heavy-handed opening captions over a montage of the 1969 Stonewall riots we are dropped into a fictionalised account of that event starting with the arrival on New York’s Christopher Street of Danny (Jeremy Irvine), a (fictional) typical Midwestern boy getting his first taste of the big city.
In flashback we see how he was thrown out of his home for being gay, but conveniently had a place at Columbia University so headed to New York where we catch up with him as he meets a group of ‘street kids’ (highlighted by Jonny Beauchamp’s Ray) who introduce him to the seedier side of gay life as he finds his way through the summer of 1969 in what feels like a very broadly drawn and often stereotypical fashion.
Being directed by the man behind Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, it shouldn’t be surprising that Stonewall paints everything in very broad strokes. Unfortunately those films are entirely fictional disaster epics while Stonewall purports to tell something at least vaguely based on fact and includes many real life figures of the New York gay rights movement.
On one level I can see why Emmerich may have chosen to take this approach, simplifying the story to make it more easy to digest to a broader audience. In doing this though he seems to cut out a lot of fairly crucial detail to not only the Stonewall Riots themselves but then the ongoing movement it spawned.
Added to this is that the fictional Danny, while being something of an easily digestible everyman for the white middle class, seems to erase a lot of the contribution to events from large, and crucially still often unrepresented, sections of the LGBT(etc) community most notably in this case transgender women of colour and lesbians.
Added to this is the fact that the film seems to gloss over a lot of the issues that were part of the cause and effect of the riots so, much like the people involved, they are paid a brief lip service but little more, making the whole affair seem somewhat shallow and more about Danny’s fictional (if representative) coming of age story and a flash of angry youth.
While the story is very generic in many ways the performers do what they can with the little they are given but really only Beauchamp comes out as memorable while many other usually good actors, including Ron Perlman, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and others are left with little to make them stand out while the production design never feels like a real city, at its worth feeling almost cartoonish and its best simply too clean and neat for some supposedly fairly squalid locations.
Some more captions over the closing of the film try to point out the importance of the riot, but even these don’t really make their point as they are not backed up by what we’ve just seen.
In the end this all comes together in something of a confused mess where none of the characters really become fully rounded and the story isn’t sure if it wants to be a coming of age story, a vague organised crime police procedural or a film about gay rights history.
In many ways, on paper, it is something akin to Pride (set during the UK’s gay rights revolution in the 1980s) but while that is entertaining, thought-provoking and, above all, feels genuine, Stonewall feels like an oversimplified fictionalisation of an event that doesn’t need to be, and really shouldn’t be, treated in that way.