PrintE-mail Written by Robert Martin

Vilified even before its release, Roland Emmerich's Stonewall was a huge critical and commercial failure, but now that the accusations of tampering with history have quietened down, is there a good film at its heart struggling desperately to come out?

Back in late '60s America, life was tough for LGBT citizens. They could be fired  from their jobs, denied basic rights and it was illegal even in NYC to sell drinks to them. Gay bars were very discrete and were run by the Mafia. Whilst police raids were common but carried out for corrupt reasons. One such bar, Stonewall, became a focal point for a riot following one such raid, a riot which helped lead to the first Gay Rights march in New York and which kick started the civil rights movement which continues today.

It's important to know that, for LGBT people and anyone interested in civil rights, Stonewall, the venue and historical moment, is an essential part of history, an event which matters. And you'd think, being gay himself, that Mr Emmerich would have wanted to portray what happened with accuracy.

But the film isn't accurate. Instead, it follows far too closely the coming out story of a fictional character, Danny, a clean cut white boy from the mid-west, rejected by his family and finding himself amongst the drag queens and hustlers in Greenwich Village. We see how it feels for a nice middle class boy to be rejected for being gay. We see how different and (horrible term) 'straight acting' he is compared to those he falls in with. But mainly we see how white he is and how male he is, when so many of the people involved in the riots were either not white, not male and certainly not fictional. 
So the story has been made safe for mass audiences, the black, hispanic, lesbian, transexual people who were real, sidelined to supporting roles. Danny even gets to throw the first brick, something which got some of the LGBT community raging during early screenings of the film and which resulted in a call to boycott it.

All of this said, somewhere inside, there's a pretty good film hidden away. It looks and sounds wonderful, the period detail and mood beautifully captured. The performances are excellent, with particular plaudits going to some of those sidelined characters who play up the reality of living on society's margins whilst still aiming for fabulousness exceptionally well. The brutality of living as an LGBT person before any rights existed for those communities is all there, and there's a realistic portrayal of the type of underground but vital Christopher Street community which existed, if you read accounts from the period.

But too much plot pushes the actual riots back to the last half hour of the film, and the real ones lasted for four nights, not the single event shown here, making Stonewall a film that's not really about Stonewall at all. It condenses a complex series of events into two hours whilst making it 'acceptable' for the mainstream, and appealing to, well, who?

Its heart is certainly in the right place but it needed a history-knowing angry drag queen to go through the script with her eye-liner pencil and make some radical changes.


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