(2015) True Life Drama (Roadside Attractions) Jeremy Irvine, Jonny Beauchamp, Ron Perlman, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Caleb Landry Jones, Matt Craven, Joey King, Karl Glusman, David Cubitt, Andrea Frankle, Atticus Dean Mitchell, Richard Jutras, Otoja Abit, Rohan Mead, Ben Sullivan, Johnny Falcone, Vladimir Alexis, Kwasi Songui, Alan C. Peterson, Veronika Vernadskaya. Directed by Roland Emmerich
For the LBGT community, the Stonewall Riots of 1969 that took place following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn (a bar that catered to gay men and lesbians in an era when it was illegal to serve liquor to a homosexual) are a watershed moment, an event around which prompted real organization of gay rights activists.
In the late 1960s, homosexuality was considered a mental illness and was treated with electroshock therapy among other barbaric treatments. Gays were forbidden from working for the government, couldn’t get bank loans and were the targets of vicious beatings – often from the police.
Danny (Irvine), a young gay man from Indiana who has been kicked out of the house by his homophobic father (Cubitt) who also happens to be the high school football coach, has gone to New York City where he has a scholarship to Columbia University – if he can get his high school diploma and get his paperwork sent to the University. Dear old dad has no intention of helping his son, but his cowed mother (Frankle) is sympathetic and his little sister Phoebe (King) absolutely adores him and is very angry at her parents for the way they’ve treated their son.
Danny, having little money and nowhere to go, falls in with a group of gay street kids led by Ramon (Beauchamp), a hustler who turns tricks with middle class men who are firmly closeted, have wives and careers and occasionally beat the snot out of him. Ramon takes him in and fellow street kids Silent Paul (Sullivan), a Beatlephile, Orphan Annie (Jones) and Cong (Alexis) who is the most flamboyant of the bunch. He also attracts the eye of Trevor (Meyers), an activist who works for the early gay rights group the Mattachine Society. They believe in peaceful protest and non-violence while most of the street kids know that they will never get the attention of the straight society that way.
Most of them gather at the Stonewall Inn, a bar that is owned by the Mafia and managed by Ed Murphy (Perlman) who disdains the gay clientele but allows them to do pretty much what they want (the Mafia used the bar to blackmail wealthier gay clientele and made more money that way than from liquor but that’s not discussed in the film). Danny is a bit out of his element but soon grows to appreciate the more outgoing of his crew but there is tension between Ramon, who has fallen deeply in love with Danny, and Trevor to whom Danny is more attracted to.
Danny’s heart, however, belongs to Matt (Mitchell), the football player whom Danny was having furtive gay sex with and who threw Danny under the bus when they were discovered, prompting his ejection from school and home. Danny endures beatings from the cops and growing tensions between the now very jealous Ramon and Trevor, who may or may not be using Danny for his own devices, but those tensions are nothing compared to what was going on in the community and they would come to a head on a hot summer night in June 1969 when Detective Seymour Pine (Craven) made an ill-advised raid on the Stonewall.
Few people in the heterosexual community are all that aware of the Riots and their significance and the movie is the perfect opportunity to educate and inform. Unfortunately Emmerich, who is mostly known for his big sci-fi epics like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow decided to make a fictional account, using fictional characters mixed in with a few real ones like Pine and Marsha P. Johnson (Abit). Considering that there are plenty of those who were actual participants and observers who had some compelling stories to tell about the riots, it seems a bit of a waste.
&I had wondered why Emmerich didn’t use actual footage from the riots instead of recreated footage disguised as newsreels until I discovered that no footage exists of the riots and precious few photographs. I guess it’s hard for people of this modern society in which everything is documented to understand that news was covered by newspaper writers and photographers for the most part and to a lesser extent, television cameras and it was editors for newspapers and TV who determined what got covered and back then, a riot of gay people would tend to be given less attention (although it was front page news).
Beauchamp does a great job as Ramon/Ramona who wears his heart on his sleeve. There’s a heartbreaking moment after a client has badly beaten him where he confesses to Danny that this life is all he can hope for and that he expects that there will never be anything better for him. It’s a compelling performance and Beauchamp has a good shot at some better roles.
There is a lot of sexuality in this movie – a LOT – and the sex scenes are handled pretty much the same way you would see heterosexual sex scenes in a mainstream movie; kudos to Emmerich for treating the two equally. Of course, conservative Christians will likely lose their shit over it much as they did for Brokeback Mountain but that’s assuming that the movie makes any sort of cultural headway, which is not necessarily going to happen.
Considering that this is a movie about such a significant event in the gay community, the filmmakers including writer Jon Robin Baitz, a respected playwright, seem to promote gay stereotypes almost to absurd heights. Yes, there were plenty of drag queens back then and there were those who were lisping, mincing fairies who gave birth to the stereotype, but we get little sense of who these people are other than those stereotypes. Also, using the very uptight, whitebread Danny as more or less your audience surrogate is almost insulting and watching him go from zero to radical in the space of about 30 seconds is downright jarring and outright unbelievable. If you’re going to pander to stereotypes, may as well go all the way with it.
I’m really overrating this movie to a large degree because I think that the story is an important one. There is certainly a great movie to be made about the Riots but this isn’t it. It’s a squandered opportunity but I’m still recommending it because at least you get the sense of how oppressed the gay community was back then and how far they have come since. That much is worth the price of admission alone.
REASONS TO GO: A story that needs to be told. Some good performances, particularly from Beauchamp. Sex scenes handled with sensitivity.
REASONS TO STAY: Going fictional was a tactical error. Plays up gay stereotypes.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of sex and sexual content, some drug use, plenty of foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The riots took place on June 28, 1969 and lasted several nights instead of just the one indicated by the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 9% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Selma
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Black Mass