There’s bad, and then there’s offensively bad. WithStonewall, director Roland Emmerich has taken a seminal moment in gay rights history and reduced it to mere background for a coming-of-age story we’ve seen before. It comes with all the nuance you’d expect from the auteur behind The Day After Tomorrow and White House Down.
Cornfed Indiana boy Danny (Jeremy Irvine) is a figment of Emmerich’s imagination, partially conceived, the director has said, as “a very easy in” for straight audiences. But the character is so laughably cliche that he does nothing but detract. A football player and the coach’s son, Danny is kicked out of his parents’ house when he’s found hooking up—no joke—with the team quarterback. He arrives in New York three months before the Stonewall Riots, and although he’s quickly and conveniently adopted by a group of hustlers-with-hearts-of-gold, he’s still stupid enough to stand around gawping while nightstick-wielding police swarm in to bust a pick-up scene. He falls for the strapping Trevor’s (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) savior-boyfriend schtick and finds himself turning tricks when his parents refuse to send in his scholarship paperwork—yes, he’s pretty much slumming it before heading off to the Ivy League in the fall—and moons over his lost QB love, reliving his high school heartbreak via interminable flashbacks.
Emmerich and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz could have focused on real-life participants (the filmmakers have been accused of whitewashing history since the trailer debuted, and deservedly so) or explored any number of themes that would’ve been more compelling than “pretty white kid comes out, struggles.” For one, they barely touched on the clash between the intellectual faction of the movement, who were striving to gain mainstream acceptance and equality by fitting in, and the out-and-proud crowd that rejected the idea of respectability politics. Instead, in this twisted version of events, they have Danny throwing the first brick in the Riots—he’s first to shout, “Gay power!”
Meanwhile, the roles of pivotal players like Martha P. Johnson—portrayed here by Otoja Abit—and other characters of color are minimized, reduced to stereotypes, and even more insultingly, played for laughs. Other supporting cast members receive more screentime but barely scratch the surface: Ron Perlman menaces as the film’s heavy, a part so one-dimensionally evil he could play it in his sleep, and Rhys Meyers delivers his steely-eyed, clenched-jaw act without so much as a stretch. Such an imbalance might not be quite as galling if Irvine were a more dynamic lead, but thanks to his wooden delivery and bungled backstory, his emotional scenes ring false. (Though, to be fair, the clunky, exposition-heavy script does none of them any favors.) The one positive glimmer comes in the form of Jonny Beauchamp’s Ray, a street-smart Peter Pan to his ragtag bunch of Lost Boys, who manages to bring a spark of realism to his character.
When the film’s postscript—detailing the genuine struggles and accomplishments of the movement’s activists and the lasting policy changes effected, in part, by their work—is more touching than the movie itself, it’s obviously problematic. The Stonewall Riots were a triumph for a marginalized community, but Emmerich fails to convey the significance of the event in any meaningful fashion. The subject matter deserves better, and so do we. D