I first heard about the 1969 Stonewall riots in the early 1980s. I vaguely recall mentions in books I read after coming out and conversations with gay friends. Before researching Stonewall to write Happy Independence Day, all I knew was that a bunch of New York City queens stood up to police during a late June raid of the Stonewall Inn.
While somewhat accurate, that little summary leaves out a lot of important details. The riots were part of a larger, more complicated, and far more interesting story about politics, extortion, corruption, and more that too few people have heard. So I was thrilled to hear a movie about Stonewall was in the works.
Reviews lit up my Facebook feed even before the 2015 premiere. Most were so bad, I scratched the movie from my “must see” list. Curiosity finally got the best of me and I watched Stonewall: Where Pride Began while I was off for Thanksgiving.
Columbia-bound Kansas farm boy Danny Winters plays high school football on a team coached by his father. Danny gets caught going down on his boyfriend (the quarterback), who falsely claims Danny got him drunk and took advantage of him. Coach Winters boots Danny off the team and out of the family home.
Danny ends up in New York where he falls in with Ramona and her homeless friends who hang out at the Stonewall Inn. He falls for the more affluent and successful Trevor, who turns out to be a dick. He and Ramona explain the way things are to the newcomer (and the audience) from two very different perspectives.
Danny catches the eye of Ed “The Skull” Murphy — a mobster and manager of the Stonewall Inn who recruits hustlers from the homeless patrons for an extortion scam. Poor Danny cries while his clients are blowing him. Twice.
Danny finally takes a stand for what he believes in and fights alongside his gay pals during the riots. The last third or so of the movie takes place a few years later with Danny returning to Kansas to face his family and confront his old boyfriend.
I expected a movie about the Stonewall riots. I got a coming of age story about a blond boy-next-door from the Midwest. Too bad. Coming of age stories are a dime a dozen. A movie about the Stonewall riots, however, would be unique.
I get it. Fictionalized stories about events need an underlying story with main characters who somehow change along the way. Danny’s story fits the bill, and the movie may have done great at the box office with a different title. Centering a movie about the Stonewall riots around a guy like Danny Winters was a really bad idea.
Blond athletes with scholarships to Columbia were few and far between when the riots broke out. Initial resistance came primarily from individuals we’d now describe as members of the trans community who, mad as they were, maintained a sense of humor about the whole thing.
No doubt, decision-makers believed Danny would help the movie to appeal to a broader audience. Instead, not casting a trans person in the lead pissed off the segment of the population most likely to see the movie. A main character more like Ramona and her friends would have worked better and eliminated much of the criticism.
The New York scenes are the best part of the movie. Historically accurate details fly by so fast, anyone who doesn’t already know likely missed them. The riot is depicted pretty much the way the first night of the uprising went down, but there were three more nights of rioting over the next week that don’t even get a mention.
Stonewall: Where Pride Began is too much Danny Winters and not nearly enough Stonewall. Devoting less time to Danny’s totally unrelated story and more to what made Stonewall a landmark event in the gay history of the United States would have made for a much better movie.
Anyone who sees it who’s read Happy Independence Day will likely notice some jaw-dropping similarities. I was about to call my attorney when it hit me. The writers used the same resource I did — a 2010 book by David Carter, Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. If you really want to know what happened (along with what might have happened and what definitely did NOT happen), I highly recommend it.
I’m less enthusiastic about the movie. Until another Stonewall movie comes out (and I hope it does), Stonewall: Where Pride Began is all we’ve got. I guess it’s better than nothing. Barely.