A laudable idea disastrously executedBottom Highlights, Movie Review Thursday, October 1st, 2015
After Roland Emmerich, the gay, German-born director of The Fourth of July and The Day After Tomorrow, learned about the plight of homeless LGBT youth, he decided to make a movie about them, and that movie transmogrified into the story of homeless LGBT youth who helped start the 1969 Stonewall riots. This is a laudable idea. But Emmerich, used to making studio movies with $200 million budgets, treated his independently financed $17 million film about an iconic moment in both American and queer history like a consumer product. He allowed test audiences – the focus groups of the movie business – to convince him that in order to draw in straight moviegoers that the film’s protagonist should be a fictional white-bread white boy from Indiana who is, as he told Buzzfeed, “straight-acting.” Ugh.
Yes, he deserves a great deal of the criticism he’s had heaped on him. In addition to the test audience filmmaking and the “straight-acting” comment, the movie is not good. It’s ham-fisted, overstuffed, often cloying, and its good parts are easily overshadowed by its dreadful parts. But Danny is the worst of it all: As the proxy for the audience, his experience is meant to introduce the audience to the homeless LGBT kids in Greenwich Village.
Kicked out of his house for being gay by his wretched football coach father, Danny (Jeremy Irvine) takes the bus to New York and immediately is taken in by Ray, a fem Puerto Rican street prostitute who is usually in some sort of drag. Ray (Jonny Beauchamp) is clearly based on the pioneering transgender rights activist and Stonewall veteran Sylvia Rivera. It is Ray’s quips of street wisdom, her wise-cracks and her righteous anger at the world that has rejected, beaten and spit on her that give Stonewall what little life it has. And Jonny Beauchamp is fantastic as Ray, making her as dynamic and sympathetic as Danny is wooden and dull.
While entirely too much of the film follows Danny around on his mopey quest for self-acceptance, two of the best scenes in the film focus on black drag queens. Marsha P. Johnson, played by Otoja Abit, was a legendary figure from Stonewall, and she is depicted reverentially, as funny and kind, and her flamboyant reaction to her arrest at the Stonewall Inn incites the soon-to-be rioters. And Queen Cong (Vladimir Alexis) has the most profound moment in the film. While Danny, Ray and their friends are being evicted from a filthy SRO, Cong rips down the curtains to create an outfit. Danny is appalled and says, “You just take what you want, don’t you?” Yes, she replies, because she has nothing. And then: “I have not seen one dream come true on Christopher Street, baby. Not one.” This bitter fatalism sets up the anger and frustration that spills into the riots, and Alexis’ delivery is chilling.
Stonewall’s crime is its cynicism and its great failure is its emphasis on Danny. Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson would be much more interesting and important people to build a film around. Luckily, David Francis, who directed the Oscar-nominated ACT-UP documentary How to Survive a Plague, knows that and he has just begun filming Sylvia & Marsha. I do hope that the many people outraged by Stonewall, for both the right and wrong reasons, support the documentary when it arrives, to help show that the white proxy theory is hooey.
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Jon Robin Baitz
Starring Jeremy Irvine, Jonny Beauchamp and Vladimir Alexis
At AMC Fashion Valley and Reading Gaslamp
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