Roland Emmerich's Disastrously Personal 'Stonewall' Movie

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Protesters square off against police outside the Stonewall Inn in a still from the movie "Stonewall." Philippe Bossé/Roadside Attractions

The new gay-rights drama Stonewall is bad—like, really bad—but everybody knew that already.

Anyone familiar with the oeuvre of filmmaker Roland Emmerich, the mind behind the destructo-spectacles Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, had an inkling that the director might carry his trademark hackneyed scripting and blithe disregard for the physics of human behavior into the more emotion-driven territory.

The characters that aren’t reduced to cardboard cut-outs are invariably hamstrung by porno-quality dialogue and acting to match. In excising the computer-generated extravaganzas and effectively shrugging off the one thing that he’s actually good at, Emmerich’s cooked up a turkey on an entirely unprecedented level, where the liquid fat of easy sentiment congeals into a gelatinous glob of pathos-manipulation and unearned inspiration. So when Stonewall goes into wide release on September 25, the question on the movie-going public’s mind will not be whether the film is merely bad, but actively evil.

An openly gay man himself, Emmerich took on the account of the storied Stonewall riots that pushed the fight for gay rights into the public consciousness as a passion project.

“There was pushback [from studios],” Emmerich tells Newsweek. “Normally, I make movies with studios, but there was not one studio who wanted to make this film. So we financed it ourselves, with presales, personal money, money from friends and investors.”

But along with scriptwriter Jon Robin Baitz, Emmerich made a handful of decisively ahistorical changes to the record. Stonewall is structured around the experiences of the the wholly fictional Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine), a corn-fed closet case from the farm belt who takes flight from his provincial Midwestern hamlet to embrace his sexual identity and find himself in the Big Apple. During his time at the Stonewall Inn, a legendary Greenwich Village gay hot spot, Danny makes the acquaintance of a number of street-smart LGBT hustlers—some real, some less so. Emmerich alleges that Johnny Beauchamp’s character, Ray, represents a composite of several different true-to-life figures, such as trans activist Sylvia Rivera, a central player in the Stonewall narrative. Another key member of the movement, the black trans woman Marsha P. Johnson, makes a few appearances in the film, all of them troublingly minor.

It’s here that the trouble begins. Upon the release of the film’s initial trailer back in August, advocacy groups cried foul at the film’s rejiggering of history, outraged at the minimization of the riots’ core movers and shakers in the service of a pretty young white boy. The term in popular use has been whitewashing, a neologism referring to the process by which posterity downplays the roles played by people of color and vaunts white figures, usually men. In some circles on social-media platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr, black and trans activists have called for a full-on boycott of the film when it premieres for the general public. It would seem that for many, sight unseen, the film’s fate has already been sealed.

Going into production, the unusually high stakes of a film grappling with this level of social import were not unknown to the creative team. “The only thing I was worried about with [Stonewall] was how much it would mean to such a large group of people,” said star Jeremy Irvine. “I was desperate to make sure we did it justice. When I saw the movie for the first time, I felt so immensely proud and relieved.”

Others have not shared Irvine’s pride and relief. In the reviews that poured out of the Toronto International Film Festival upon Stonewall’s world premiere last week, critics savaged the picture both as a work of bad art and bad politics. As feared, the film places the highly telegenic Danny front-and-center while restricting Marsha P. Johnson to the margins, and barely allowing the lesbian characters any lines at all.

And yet, for all of his missteps (and they are many), it would be unfair to accuse Emmerich of malevolent intent. The true culprit here is a misguided focus—that is to say, the intimate nature of this project in the first place.

“It starts with a kid who loses his family and finds a new family,” Emmerich explains. “But I didn’t also want to leave [other groups] totally out, because they were important, Marsha P. Johnson was an important character.… It’s not a documentary. It’s not supposed to be.”

Emmerich’s fatal misstep lies not in his choice to alter the hard facts of the Stonewall riots, but instead to tell a different story entirely, imposing a frightfully typical coming-of-age narrative on this politically-charged event, which here serves as a backdrop. As opposed to a chronicle of the goings-on around the Village, Emmerich inserts an avatar for himself into the action, like gay-rights fan-fiction. Stonewall is the filmmaker’s most personal film to date, but he’s personalized what was, in reality, someone else’s narrative entirely. By his own admission, Emmerich’s first priority was to tell his own story.

“I couldn’t find any character where I could put my head into the whole Stonewall riots,” Emmerich said. “I’m not transgender, I’m not a lesbian, I’m a person who was deep in the closet.”

Emmerich’s insistence on assuming an outsider’s perspective in order to match his own experiences doesn’t so much misrepresent the story as much as it creates a new one entirely. When echoing Emmerich’s sentiments, Irvine provides a key insight into the root of his director’s problematic approach: “[Emmerich] wanted someone who’s an outsider to see these kids,” Irvine said, “and that’s what Danny does, he comes in as an outsider. He’s who we see the story through. We, as the audience, aren’t used to being in this group. So we watch this person who isn’t used to it being thrown into this world.”

In Stonewall, both Irvine and Emmerich have made an unspoken assumption about the audience: that, like them, they are white men from backgrounds marked by stability, alien to the rougher neighborhoods that spawned the Stonewall movement. The end result of this thinking is an odd paradox, a film about Stonewall that’s not quite for the very people that the movement championed.

The truth of this unfortunate situation is a bit more banal than advocates on either side of the mounting controversy might like to admit. Stonewall does not come from a man intent on erasing heroes who don’t look like him; that’s an unsavory side effect of his single-minded goal to express himself, albeit in a space that does not belong to him. (Irvine couldn’t have possibly summed up the well-meaning intentions more perfectly: “I always knew, deep down. I was like, ‘I’m sure we’ve done this right. I’m sure we have.’”)

Emmerich’s sins err on the side of the everyday—an inability to see beyond himself, crippling short-sightedness and, his chief offense, thoughtlessness. Out of his element and in way over his head, the director known for blowing up the White House fundamentally lacked the delicate touch necessary to do right by the figures he depicted. Look close enough and audiences will find an almost childlike sweetness to the complete absence of self-awareness that Emmerich displays when misrepresenting the film’s historical context.

“I never think too much, when I make a film, what is the style,” Emmerich said. “I just do it.”