‘Stonewall’ might be the year’s most insulting film, but not for the reasons you think

‘Stonewall’ might be the year’s most insulting film, but not for the reasons you think
Despite all the bricks thrown, 'Stonewall' is not a hit.
Despite all the bricks thrown, ‘Stonewall’ is not a hit.

To note that Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall, a heavily-fictionalized (i.e., factually dubious) retelling of the events that took place leading up to the historic queer-led Christopher Street protests in 1969, has been met with controversy would be an understatement as riotous as the events depicted in the film.

By now, you likely already know the film’s sad path to theatrical release. The trailer dropped in early August to much dismay over its focus on a fictitious white, blond twink savior protagonist (Jeremy Irvine), rather than any of the real-life heroes who were there during the watershed moment. There were threats of protests and boycotts, particularly from notable trans activists outraged that the contributions of trans pioneers and people of color had been downplayed, or as the media described it, “whitewashed.” The filmmakers (Emmerich and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz) and cast (Irvine), sensing a disaster worthy of Emmerich’s oeuvre, stepped up to attempt damage control, suggesting people wait until they saw the entire film to form their opinions.

That’s when the real problems fun began. As soon as the film was screened for critics and folks in the media during the past weeks, word quickly spread about unintentional laughter from the audience during the film’s pivotal dramatic moments. Early reviews began to trickle in and, as Emmerich instructed, critics offered their informed opinions. Most agreed that Emmerich and company not only neglected to create a politically correct or historically accurate account of the riots, but their film epically failed as entertainment. Stonewall currently has a 7% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

Earlier this week, Emmerich delivered what is likely the final blow to potentially friendly queer audiences when he stated during an interview with BuzzFeed, “You have to understand one thing: I didn’t make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people. I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting. He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him.”

Aw, Roland, how gentlemanly of you to rewrite our history as a concession to hetero audiences and to make their comfort your priority. Now it’s our turn to respond in kind and avoid your stink bomb, which should work no hardship on anyone.

Scroll down for reviews from writers around the nation who lobbed critical bricks at the catastrophe Emmerich has unleashed upon movie audiences.

In a piece aptly titled “There Aren’t Enough Bricks in the World to Throw at Roland Emmerich’s Appalling Stonewall,Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak offers:

Rather than choose something debatable, the filmmakers created something definitively untrue. Rather than exploring the conflicting stories of what sparked the riot (was it Marsha P. Johnson’s shot glass, a high heel, a brick, or what?), which could have made for a fascinating formal exercise, they just credited the white guy. Rather than really examine Stonewall, a place obviously brimming with unheard stories of extreme living, Emmerich and company decided to center their narrative on a dude who drops by the bar a few times while floating through the city (only to settle uptown at Columbia when the summer ends). Imagine, just one time, an ensemble led by a character who isn’t white and “straight-acting.” Imagine people of color being used for more than just support.

Like many critics, IndieWire’s Charles Bramesco lays most of the blame on Baitz’s screenplay:

The thick blanket of badness that covers the entirety of the film doesn’t do its problematic subtextual politics any favors, either. At the very least, Emmerich can hold his head high in the knowledge that he wasn’t responsible for the astonishingly thick script — that distinction belongs to Jon Robin Baitz, the pen behind such stirring moments as one during the climactic riot, in which our hero raises his fist to the heavens and screams “GAY POWER!” Come to think of it, that’s really what most of the film feels like: a fist shoved in a face and words howled into ears. The insulting obviousness with which characters make declarations about the Change That Must Come and the Injustice That Has Been Suffered For Too Long strip the film of any potential for resonant poignance with its intended audience. Emmerich’s freedom fighters speak not like human beings, but political mouthpieces designed to express the simplest ideas for the simplest-minded audiences.

MetroWeekly‘s Randy Shulman shared his outrage:

Stonewall is a defamation not just to our community, but to moviegoers of all genders, sexualities, race, creed, you have it. A vanity project of astonishingly huge proportions, it’s the deeply misguided work of a white, gay, obscenely privileged man thumping his chest and proclaiming, “This is how I see our history.”

Vanity Fair‘s Richard Lawson took the shoddy screenplay to task:

Stonewall is, plain and simple, a terribly made movie, with an alarmingly clunky script by acclaimed playwright Jon Robin Baitz (“I’m too angry to love anyone right now” is one howler—of course delivered by Danny to poor, still pining Ray) and a production design that makes late 1960s Christopher Street look like Sesame Street.

Alonso Duralde from The Wrap added:

Stonewall somehow manages to be simultaneously bloated and anemic, overstuffed and underpopulated. It’s a story about a true historical event that spends way too much time on its fictional lead character; the tone is so erratic and artificial that it wouldn’t feel surprising if the movie suddenly became a musical. And as the film gets duller and duller, you find yourself wishing these characters would break into song, just for variety’s sake.

Comic Guy Brannan reviewed the film on his blog:

As Roland Emmerich, the director of The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day, takes on the challenge of representing the transformative moment in queer civil rights, the one task he is tireless in attending to is making sure we all know where our hero’s suitcase is. At a key perilous moment in the film, when our hero has just been kidnapped and all of the West Village is in turmoil, the camera slowly pans over to Danny’s beloved suitcase so we can see it rescued by a man title cards will later inform us is a real life civil rights hero. Successfully tracking that luggage is the film’s only success.

Michael Wilmington took aim in his review for Chicago Tribune:

Somehow, director Roland Emmerich has made a movie even less historically accurate than 10,000 BC, the one depicting Egyptian-style pyramids being constructed with the help of woolly mammoths.

New York Post‘s Lou Lumenick lamented the misfire:

Roland Emmerich’s seriously misjudged Stonewall turns the transgender drag queens who helped change America into dress extras in what’s basically a Big Apple retelling of The Wizard of Oz revolving around a Caucasian gay man’s coming of age. … Emmerich — a hugely successful director of disaster movies who happens to be gay — deserves credit for trying to call attention to the plight of gay homeless youth in this self-financed, if seriously flawed, labor of love. But with thinly drawn characters, uneven performances and tin-eared dialogue, Stonewall plays at best like a musical without the songs.

As BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore succinctly put it:

Feels like a musical with all the songs stripped out so what’s left are broad archetypes who keep ending up in tableaux.

In an essay for PBS’ Art Beat column, Mark Segal, who was actually at the 1969 riots, offered perhaps the most-telling criticism of all:

The most disturbing historical liberty, one brought up again and again in the film, is that Judy Garland’s death had something to do with the riots. That is downright insulting to us as a community, as inaccurate as it gets and trivializes the oppression we were fighting against. (Full disclosure that I had reached out to the film’s producers earlier in the process, offering to give them my account of what happened at Stonewall. They did not take me up on it. But it is clear that they must not have taken anybody else up on this offer, either.)

So if you’re going to avoid seeing Stonewall this weekend, you can do so with a clear conscience. You won’t just be striking back for the real-life queer pioneers who came before you, you’ll also be avoiding the year’s biggest turkey.

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