What is important to understand is that Danny’s suitcase is fine.
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 live civil rights hero. Successfully tracking that luggage is the film’s only success.
Stonewall is a deeply confused film. It attempts to make the story of the June 28, 1969, riots accessible by fictionalizing a white, beautiful, straight acting man-child to act as our proxy, then pushes the riots aside to focus on this boy’s love story, then pushes aside his love story so he can pine after his hometown sweetheart. The plot of this film contorts so completely that by the moment in the third act when the police come to raid the Stonewall Inn, it is a good thing. In the movie Stonewall, it is a GOOD THING which SAVES OUR HERO that the police show up to raid the bar and arrest gays.
This is a bad movie.
Our hero, Midwestern cypher Danny Winters, is so titanically normal, so mind-numbingly without specificity, that all is rendered milquetoast before him. He’s from Indiana! He plays football! He doesn’t appear to have an inappropriately close relationship with the “My Fair Lady” original cast album! The only thing Emmerich could have done to distance him further from gay culture would be to take a page from gay-for-pay webcam guys and have Irving talk about how he loves his girlfriend but needs the money at the top of every scene.
Much has been made of the film’s erasure of trans people and LGBT people of color from the film. Most articles about criticisms of the trailer described it as “white washing,” but the criticism isn’t entirely accurate. Emmerich TRIES to present a vibrant, multi-ethnic New York by dropping Danny into a band of racially diverse street hustlers who shout their lines so that we do not have opportunity to forget how fabulous they are. It’s not that Emmerich doesn’t show us effeminate, non-white or trans people, it’s just that he can’t imagine what they would do other than dress like a touring company of “Hair” and lust after Danny. The most shocking example is Otoja Abit as legendary drag queen Marsha P. Johnson. Abit’s refusal to commit to any real sense of femininity cannot be overstated. He plays our historic diva as simply a man in a dress, and I want to stab him for it. This film cannot for a moment rid itself of the awareness of what straight people see when they see LGBT people, and it is terrified of that judgment.
The only character who manages to chafe at the blandness of Stonewall is Puerto Rican hustler Ray (Jonny Beauchamp). Surrounded by cute boys with nothing to say, Ray sparkles with sensuous possibilities and salty comebacks. You cannot help but demand “Where is this bitch’s movie?” as you watch the acrobatics Beauchamp achieves with his lips, but soon enough Ray is diminished by the screenplay’s cornucopia of cliche.
Danny meets gay people, he kisses a respectable white gay man, he turns some tricks and eventually even throws a brick, but so all-consuming is this film’s worship of Danny’s perfect gayness that it transforms all lesser homos into monsters. Ray is pretty enough to simply be a crazy Latina, but older, fatter gay men are seen only as gross predators trying to abscond with some of Danny’s precious semen. When Danny is homeless and starving, a guy pays $25 bucks to blow Danny. Danny cries. Later, in the film’s most harrowing moment, a fat old man in a dress (Could it be J. Edgar?) ATTEMPTS to blow Danny, but Ray manages to save our hero from a hummer worse than death.
No actual gay man has ever been so terrified of having lips on his dick.
Also, let’s be clear: This movie’s most harrowing moment is Danny almost getting a blow job from a fat guy, NOT the Stonewall raid. That is because this movie is bad. A special, important kind of bad. It purports to tell the story of a dramatic moment in civil rights, then gives no care or attention to the people who were actually affected. Rather, it fictionalizes a white, male straight-acting Fagssiah to lead us out of oppression, then realizes the ethnic, femme homos of the Village aren’t worthy of his help. The film’s ambivalence towards non-Danny gays is so complete that during the scenes of the riot, it seems more concerned with the safety of the police inside the bar than what might be going on in the minds and hearts of the gays of New York. Oddly, this is the film’s greatest moment. There is nothing gayer than making a film about the Stonewall riots which ends up making you root for the police.
But let’s give Roland Emmerich proper respect. He created a film so targeted to my community that I had to patronize it, while making that experience so terrible I wanted to throw a brick at this movie, and if that isn’t the lesson of Stonewall I don’t know what is.
That, and Danny’s suitcase is FINE.
Guy Branum is a writer and comedian best known for his appearances on Chelsea Lately and his performance, as he puts it, as “Natalie Portman’s sassy gay friend” in No Strings Attached. He’s appeared on E!, MTV, G4, and CurrentTV and has written for shows such as Punk’d and Fashion Police. His standup album Effable is available on iTunes and you can follow him on Twitter at @guybranum.