‘Stonewall’: Re-creation of historic gay riot lacks heft

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There’s always a danger when real-life events are fictionalized for filmmaking purposes. When the event is something like the 1969 riot at the Stonewall bar in New York’s Greenwich Village — looked at as a spark that ignited the fight for gay rights in this country — playing fast and loose with the historical record understandably can upset people directly involved. It also can rile up those who, while not personally present, alive or aware of the world in 1969, may have studied the event very closely.

That already has has stirred controversy over Roland Emmerich’s “Stonewall,” based on Jon Robin Baitz’s screenplay, as criticism of the movie’s trailer has focused on the film’s seemingly overwhelming focus on the model-handsome, hunky blonde lead character of Danny Winters, played by Jeremy Irvine.To be fair, the trailer brouhaha is overstated, as the actual film showcases a wide spectrum of gay men of that era, with African-Americans, Latinos and people of mixed race well-represented. In fact, Jonny Beauchamp, who portrays the flamboyant Puerto Rican queen Ray (who bears the drag name of Ramona) is the best thing in this movie.The storyline does center on Irvine’s Danny, a closeted teen athlete from Indiana, whose college scholarship is jeopardized when his secret romance with his football team’s quarterback is discovered — and shames him in the eyes of his entire small town. It’s especially troubling to his father, who also happens to be the high school football coach. With quick dispatch, Danny finds his bags packed by his Bible Belt-reared father, who clearly has long suspected his son may be gay.Danny flees to New York with few bucks in his pocket and quickly finds himself in Manhattan’s late ’60s “gay ghetto,” centered around Christopher Street in the Village. He’s immediately “adopted” by Ray’s merry little band of street hustlers, misfits and female impersonators, who teach the naive Midwesterner the ways of the Big Apple — especially the do’s and don’t’s of gay life in a world where homosexuality was still illegal.Along the way, Danny hooks up with Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who represents the kind of gay men of the time who believed a slow, orderly campaign would eventually bring about equality for the LGBT community — a term that wasn’t even in use back in the late 1960s.While Emmerich does capture many aspects of the gritty downtown gay nightlife of the time — and the attendant police brutality frequently experienced by gays during raids on bars owned and operated by the mob — so much of this film comes off as repetitive and frankly too simplistic.Baitz’s screenplay bears a large part of the blame for all that, especially when we see Danny — literally on one night — become totally radicalized and a leader of the rioting that centered on the Stonewall bar.The highlight is the performance of Beauchamp, who not only nails the campy, bitchy street hustler aspect of his character, but also delivers true emotion and deep pathos, as his personal story of loss and rejection is revealed.This is an OK movie about a serious subject and an important milestone in the road to gay freedom and equality. It’s just a shame it didn’t accomplish the kind of cinematic punch as did the Oscar-winning “Milk,” about the martyred Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first gay county commissioner, just a few short years ago.[s3r star=2.5/4]

Roadside Attractions presents a film directed by Roland Emmerich and written by Jon Robin Baitz. Running time: 129 minutes. Rated R (for sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug use). Opens Friday at local theaters. 

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