Friday, September 25, 2015

Stonewall (opens in Cleveland September 25th exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre)

[STONEWALL opens in Cleveland on Friday September 25th exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre.]

Review by Pamela Zoslov

Poor Roland Emmerich. The director of action blockbusters like INDEPENDENCE DAY, GODZILLA and DAY AFTER TOMORROW, gets little enough respect. Now he's being attacked for his “labor of love,” STONEWALL, a movie dramatizing events surrounding the 1969 Stonewall riots, the New York City uprising that's considered the catalyst for the modern Gay Rights movement.

The German-born director, who is gay, was so committed to the project that he financed it himself, along with friends, and stepped in as director when no one else would. “Nobody wanted to do it,” he said in an interview online, “and I was stubborn, and then I got it done.”

But the release in August of a two-minute, 23-second trailer ignited a firestorm on the Internet and threats of a boycott. The charge is that the film shortchanges trans people and people of color by focusing on a fictional white male, played by Jeremy Irvine. (Irvine is not merely white; he's English, as are some other cast members.)

The story, Emmerich said, was inspired by a friend's experience as well as his own, and the movie features a racially and ethnically diverse cast. The central character is white, he explained, because he represents Emmerich himself. “You have to put yourself a little bit in, and I'm white.” The movie itself inspired a lengthy screed on the Gawker website that suggested the movie, as much as the Stonewall Inn, needed to have bricks thrown at it.

The lack-of-diversity claim is a little unfair to the movie, which features characters based on real-life trans and African-American activists like Marsha B. Johnson (Otoja Abit). Danny's closest friend in the movie is Puerto Rican “street queen” Ray/Ramona, a composite of trans activist Sylvia Rivera and activist Raymond Castro, emotionally portrayed by the lissome Jonny Beauchamp.

Good intentions are present in abundance. What the film needs is a screenplay that doesn't induce snickers in places and impatience in others, especially as it grinds toward the two-hour mark and the titular riot hasn't even started. By the time the first brick is thrown at the Stonewall Inn, we've sat through an exhausting exposition of the Perils of Danny, the Midwestern boy cast out of his home and living on the streets of Manhattan with a band of colorful gays, who ham it up in homemade and shoplifted gladrags, chanting, doing a can-can, and debating the merits of Judy vs. Barbra.

The neophyte farmboy taken under the wings of counterculture “freaks” is an awfully hoary tale. At times the setting, with Montreal standing in for Greenwich Village, looks like a road production of “Hair.” (A few songs, in fact, wouldn't have seemed out of place.) Danny's experiences as a reluctant street hustler are also strongly reminiscent of MIDNIGHT COWBOY, especially his hotel encounter with a fat èminence grise who emerges in gown, wig and pearls à la J. Edgar Hoover.

The script is a mixed bag, heavy on pathos and cliché but with more than a few truly stirring scenes. It was written by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, whose plays have earned him prestigious awards and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

The movie takes us into the troubled home life of Danny Winters (Irvine), a high school football player from rural Indiana, where it looks like 1958 even though it's 1969. (The movie's period sense is often questionable, but in the case of rural Indiana, I think the retrogressiveness is accurate). Danny himself wears a modified D.A., looking like a cross between James Dean and Justin Bieber. He's exploring his burgeoning gay identity, along with Joe (Karl Glusman), a schoolmate he meets for secret trysts.

Danny's misfortune is that the coach of his football team is also his dad (David Cubitt), and in neither capacity does the old man tolerate homosexuality. “There are signs,” Coach Dad tells his wife darkly. Suspecting his son may be “that way,” the Coach makes his class watch a laughably alarmist hygiene film about homosexuality. Meanwhile, Danny declines to shower with the rest of his teammates (“I don't sweat”).

When Danny and Joe are caught in a compromising situation, Danny is shunned at school and at home, his only ally his preternaturally hip and wise little sister (Joey King), named Phoebe in obvious homage to Holden Caulfield (for emphasis, she is seen reading a book of Salinger stories.) Coach Dad kicks him out, while his mom assents in tremulous silence. Danny worries that without his dad's help, he won't be able to get the scholarship he yearns for to attend Columbia.

Suitcase in hand, Danny boards a bus to NYC and lands in Castro street, where a colorful troupe of loitering gay men awaits. They quickly initiate him in the ways of the street — shoplifting, hustling, sleeping in flophouses, and dancing and drinking at the Stonewall, a seedy, mob-run underground club that is friendly to gays but subject to regular police raids. The movie sets the context for the unjust and often brutal treatment of gays in 1969. It was illegal to serve gays alcohol, for gays to dance with each other, or to dress in drag (women were required to wear at least three pieces of feminine clothing.)

Danny is taken under the slender wing of Ray, the troubled, good-hearted androgyne who shows him how to survive on the streets. She also falls in love with the handsome Danny, calling him “farmboy” and weaving a cockeyed dream of domestic bliss around him. Beauchamp deftly navigates Ray's mix of streetwise know-how and childlike pathos. “Know where home is for me? Nowhere. Nobody wants me!” Danny consoles Ray when she's beaten up by a “trick,” but romantically he has eyes only for sexy activist Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Trevor is leafleting for the Mattachine Society, the venerable gay rights group whose suit-and-tie conformity contrasts with the bohemian, gender-bending style of Ray and company (“your little street gang,” Trevor calls them). Alas, Trevor is not the faithful lover Danny hopes for when he moves into his nice apartment.

The movie spends considerable time on Danny's love life and misadventures on the mean streets, but when it focuses on the Stonewall, it doesn't quite know what to do. The police regularly raid the seedy club, which may have had as much to do with its underworld activities as with the fact that gays congregate there. Real-life figures are part of the action, including the scary-looking Edward “Mother” Murphy (Ron Perelman), an ex-wrestler and gangster who was known for extortion of gay men, is shown kidnaping boys, including Danny, and forcing them into prostitution. (Later, after serving prison time, Murphy became a prominent gay-rights activist.)

The movie's narrative and dialogue are corny and its period sense is wobbly, but the film excels in vividly portraying brutalities inflicted on gay men and women by police. Danny is the victim of a particularly savage beating, accompanied by sexual taunts and slurs, by a pair of New York's finest. (In real life, such a beating would have left him dead or at least hospitalized, but thanks to movie magic, he emerges with only a few bruises.) His consciousness is raised, and he becomes one of the prime movers in the rebellion that took place on June 28, 1969 (and continued over four more nights).

For some reason, Stonewall has proved a challenging movie subject. Nigel Finch's 1995 “Stonewall” looks, on the basis of segments I've seen, more entertaining and with better music, but not much more realistic. There are also a couple of reportedly worthy documentaries, the 2010 STONEWALL UPRISING and the 1985 BEFORE STONEWALL. I found the 2010 documentary THE DOG, about the real-life man behind the bank robbery in DOG DAY AFTERNOON, effectively conveyed the gritty texture of Greenwich Village gay life and activism in the late '60s and early '70s.

Movies about historical events are always subject to controversy. Ana DuVerny's Selma focused on the organizers of the March in SELMA, but it offended people who thought it slighted President Lyndon Johnson. Emmerich's movie is being criticized for its “straight-looking” white hero and for allegedly slighting trans members of the LGBT community.

It may be better to look at the glass as half full. It's important that there is a commercial movie about this landmark event in the LGBT rights movement; if it inspires viewers to learn about the history of the long and storied fight for equality, then it has performed a valuable service.2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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