Stonewall (2015): Today is our (Gay) Independence Day!

Independence Day: Resurgence is a film that is ultimately fairly forgettable — even by dumb summer blockbuster standards. But one thing that stood out to me is how Emmerich and co. retconned the Doctor Okun character and reintroduced him back into the Independence Day “universe”. Not only did he survive having his neck broken in the first film, but when we are reintroduced to Okun we discover that he has a male partner who has been caring for him for the past two decades. What’s remarkable isn’t that Okun is a gay character in a mainstream action film — spoilers coming for Resurgence here — it’s that he gets to experience the stereotypical “girlfriend in danger” trope that is so prevalent in action films these days.

Near the end of the film Okun watches helplessly has his partner slowly dies in front of him, having what I’m sure Emmerich thought was a tender moment talking about Okun’s knitted shawl. Once Okun’s partner dies, you see the action beat that is so familiar to anyone who is familiar with the action genre. He steels his eyes, purposefully picks up a gun, starts yelling incoherently and begins to blast the aliens in an angry fit of rage (not to spoil too much, but even the just released Jason Bourne uses this beat as a way give Bourne a reason to bring down a government conspiracy yet again). It’s a small moment of progressive representation that surprised me, particularly given that the rest of the film is terrible by comparison.

Okun’s character arc served another purpose — it reminded me that Emmerich had previously directed Stonewall just a year prior. At the time I was mildly interested in watching the film, because the idea of watching a schlock-master handle a film about the most important moment in American queer civil rights history was a fascinating idea — particularly on the heels of films by more competent directors, such as Van Sant’s Milk. Ultimately I passed on it, because the reviews universally panned the film — with some critics even calling the film an insult to the real people who participated in actual riots. Now, I don’t know if Emmerich was responsible for Okun being gay in Resurgence, but since it’s probably the most progressive plot point to appear in a summer film this year (Sulu was also “retconned” into being gay in Star Trek: Beyond who is motivated by the fact that his partner and daughter are in peril at the end of the film, but that was ultimately edited so that this relationship is only implied rather than explicitly stated on screen), I almost felt an obligation to watch Stonewall to see what Emmerich tried to do with such an important moment in history. Almost by default, Emmerich is now the most progressive voice in the realm of big budget summer blockbuster films.

But first thing’s first — the film is as bad as everyone says it is. The harshest criticism is that Emmerich and Baitz, the playwright who penned Stonewall’s script, whitewashed the events of Stonewall by imposing a tired gay “coming of age” story on top of an important historical event. These critics certainly weren’t exaggerating, as the film asks us to experience this moment in history through the eyes of Danny Winters, the generic All-American character who runs away from his small town when he is forced out of the closet. I don’t want to diminish that story, but when you watch a film called Stonewall, you expect New York City and the people who inhabit Christopher St. to be the focus, not a runaway teen from Indiana. It becomes particularly problematic when the film depicts Danny as the leader of the riots by having him scream “Gay power!” before he throws the first brick at the Stonewall Inn. Real people were involved in the riots, and to erase them in favor of a fictional white man makes me feel that the ire Emmerich drew from critics was more than justified.

What’s funny, or sad depending on how you look at it, is that Emmerich gave an interview where he said the reason why he wanted Danny to be the focus of the film was because his character tested well with straight audiences. Emmerich, being the commercial filmmaker that he is, probably just can’t think any other way at this point and I’m sure there was a meeting somewhere with a bunch of suits trying to find a way to make Stonewall into a “four quadrant” film that appeals to as broad an audience as possible. I’m sure in their mind, you can’t make a black drag queen or a homeless Latino youth the main character of a film if you want it to appeal to a “broad” audience after all.

Needless to say, if you wanted to actually learn anything about the Stonewall riots, then you’re definitely in the wrong place. There are token mentions of various historical figures that were present during the riots, but nothing really comes together to tell a cohesive story.

For example there’s a shaky attempt to try to make the police sympathetic through Seymore Pine, a police inspector who historically led the raids on the Stonewall Inn. In the film, Pine is depicted as a sympathetic authority figure who is only interested in arresting a man responsible for abusing and exploiting gay youth, standing out as a positive figure in an otherwise homophobic police force. It’s an attempt to add some nuance to the police treatment of the queer community, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere. The film doesn’t even mention Pine again after the riots, since the riots only serve as a stepping stone for Danny’s coming of age story.

There’s also someone from the Mattachine Society, and in the film they stand in for gay men who believe progress comes from assimilation rather than violent revolution. But while the film raises these points, there isn’t a useful or even dramatically interesting examination of the Stonewall riots this point of view. Older gay men watch helplessly as Danny and the other youth destroy the Stonewall Inn, and the only conclusion they come to is that young people want more than they do. Do The Right Thing ended by pitting Martin Luther King Jr. against Malcolm X, asking us to consider how the Black community should try to be heard in American society. I’m sure Emmerich thought he might do the same thing with Stonewall, but he failed spectacularly.

There’s no reason for me to go on though, because Shulman’s review of the film is a very thorough take down of the film’s problematic nature. I actually wanted to consider Emmerich as a director, particularly since I watched Stonewall relatively soon after I finished Independence Day Resurgence. The one thing that struck me is that Emmerich seems to be a much better director than he appears to be based on all of the bad disaster epics that he has released. Resurgence has a lot of the terrible shot compositions that plagued the Lucas directed Star Wars prequels, where nearly every scene is built around shot/reverse-shot set ups. Perhaps this was for budgetary reasons, because the majority of these scenes involve having the actors in one shot, and then a random mess of computer generated garbage on the reverse-shot. Say what you will about Lin’s excessive flourishes, Abrams’ lens flares, or even Bay and his fetish for car chases, but at least these directors have a style that you can easily associate with them. People can probably describe what happens in an Emmerich film, but I don’t know if anyone can describe how he films those scenes, because there isn’t really anything special about what he does.

So color me surprised when I noticed that Emmerich displayed something resembling craft when I watched Stonewall:

Sure it’s something a film student would do if they wanted to show how characters are separated by an artificial barrier — in this case, Danny’s mom trying to accept that her son is gay while Danny and his sister have a quiet moment to themselves. But it seems that if you give Emmerich physical locations to shoot in and not green screen sound stages, he can be a competent filmmaker.

If you look at the final “meeting” between Danny and his father as Danny decides to settle in New York for good, you can also see Emmerich try to visually depict two people who are struggling to communicate with each other.

Danny walks down an empty road away from his childhood home, essentially heading toward a world where he can be out and not have to deny his sexual identity. Conveniently, his father happens to be driving down the same road and passes by Danny.

His father stops the car and we essentially get a moment where two people, in location that symbolises transition, stop to try to have a moment with each other.

We get a shot of the father, who pauses as he considers his options. He wants to stop, to get out and try to reconnect with his son, and we believe for a moment that maybe they will find a way to connect with each other.

Danny believes that his father has stopped for him and begins to walk toward the car. The fact that Danny makes the effort to try to reach out to his father, that he can travel backwards and forward on this road, shows that he is now free to choose how he wants to live his life. He isn’t afraid of being gay anymore, nor is he afraid that his father will reject him again. It’s probably the closest that the two characters actually get to each other, where we can clearly see both character’s faces in the same frame. Danny is hopeful, while his father is in anguish because he can’t accept that his son is gay.

Ultimately, Danny’s father decides that he can’t face Danny and chooses to drive off. For him, the road is a one-way street and all he can do is go forward — back to the house that he threw Danny out of earlier in the film.

Emmerich cuts to a shot Danny coming to the realization that he’ll never reconcile with his father — that his father is incapable of finding a way to accept him, even if he makes the effort to do so. Rather than linger on his father’s rejection, he sees this as a chapter of his life closing, heading back down the road to New York.

The scene ends with Danny walking toward the camera, toward the bottom of the frame, and move on to his new life. But in keeping with continuity, here is how we see Danny in the next scene:

He walks out from the bottom-right of the frame, leaving Indiana behind, and toward a group of protesters gathering in the Village in order to participate in what would become the very first Gay Pride March.

The only thing missing in this scene that would make this a perfect indie film moment is a shot of Danny’s father looking into his rear view mirror watching Danny approach the car before choosing to drive away.

Again, it’s nothing special in terms of using the visual language of film to tell a story between two characters without relying on dialog, but compared to Independence Day Resurgence, Stonewall is practically a masterpiece. The one thing I learned is that Emmerich is obviously capable of making something “good” (or if you want to be less kind, serviceable). I don’t know if it was the constraints of a comparatively tiny budget, or if it was because he seemed to genuinely care about telling the story of the Stonewall riots, but there was something about this film that allowed him to be more than just the b-tier blockbuster filmmaker director who happened to have a big hit 20 years ago.

I would almost consider watching Anonymous, Emmerich’s other non-blockbuster film based on the tenuous theory that the Earl of Oxford wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, to see if my theory holds true. But truthfully, the idea of a “competent” Emmerich film doesn’t exactly spark any real desire to do that. At least with Resurgence and the inevitable sequel, there is a perverse pleasure in seeing how bad a director can be at shooting action sequences. Stonewall, on the other hand, is just boring and serves as a reminder that being described as “functional” is probably not meant as a complement.