Stonewall’ does a disservice to LGBT history

Jonny Beauchamp, left, and Vladimir Alexis in ‘Stonewall’

Two stars

Stonewall Jeremy Irvine, Jonny Beauchamp, Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Directed by Roland Emmerich. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Disaster-monger Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow) is about the last person you’d expect to direct a serious drama about the 1969 Stonewall riots that kicked off the gay-rights movement. He brings his trademark bombast to Stonewall, a trite coming-of-age drama that happens to feature a riot in the background. Although it includes some historical figures as minor supporting characters, Stonewall is mainly about all-American Midwesterner Danny (Jeremy Irvine), a fictional creation and a bland central figure for a story about the liberation of a minority community.

After being kicked out by his intolerant small-town Indiana parents, Danny comes to New York City planning to attend college and quickly falls in with a crew of hustlers on Christopher Street, near the mob-run Stonewall Inn gay bar. He befriends Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), a grating, flamboyant, Judy Garland-worshipping stereotype who helps initiate him into the underground world of NYC gay life. Emmerich and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz (an acclaimed playwright), who are both gay, have been accused of downplaying the roles of trans women, lesbians and people of color in the Stonewall uprising, but given the shallow way they depict those characters who do show up, it may be a blessing that they didn’t end up with more prominent roles.

Not that Danny is exactly a three-dimensional character. The flashbacks to his Indiana home life are mired in coming-out clichés, and his dalliances in New York City (including with an activist played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) are curiously sanitized. Irvine projects so little charisma (especially in contrast to Beauchamp’s over-the-top performance) that it’s hard to understand why so many men are falling all over themselves to get a piece of him.

The riot itself doesn’t occur until the movie is nearly over, and even then it takes up maybe 15 minutes of screen time, reduced from the real-life unrest that lasted for days. At least Emmerich stages it with more restraint than his end-of-the-world spectacles, although given the overwrought melodrama of the rest of the movie, a genuinely history-making riot is the one place where a little excess might have been warranted.

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