August 8, 2011

Queer Review: Stonewall (1995)

Director: Nigel Finch
Writer: Rikki Beadle Blair. Based upon the novel by Martin Duberman.
Cast: Guillermo Díaz, Frederick Weller, Brendan Corbalis, Duane Boutte, Bruce MacVittie, Peter Ratray

The final film of director Nigel Finch, Stonewall is unfortunately a muddled mess of a movie that tells the story of the events leading up to the legendary Stonewall Riots.

Matty Dean (Frederick Weller) is an activist who has just arrived in Greenwich village looking to be a part of a movement that will create equal rights for gays and lesbians. Once there, Matty meets up with La Miranda (Guillermo Díaz) and the two begin a tentative romance. Matty also joins the Mattachine Society and befriends Ethan (Brendan Corbalis). This leads to an ideological conflict of sorts between the more conservative elements of the gay liberation movement, symbolized by the Mattachine Society and the radical flaming queers, represented by La Miranda. From there, the plot moves along in spurts and phases before coming to that fateful night and the inevitable riots that jump started the queer rights movement.

The Queering
It is unfortunate that a movie about such an important historic event is ultimately such a dramatic mess and unable to generate any significant plot momentum. There are many isolated moments and individual scenes that work in their own right, but never come together to form a coherent narrative. Most of the characters are well developed (to a point), but there is too much disconnect between them and the Stonewall Riots themselves. What I am getting at is that a compelling story could have been made featuring the individuals who actually participated in the riots, such as Sylvia Rivera. And when Matty Dean goes to the Mattachine Society, why should he not get to meet Harry Hay?

In short, that is the sum of all that is wrong with Stonewall. Take away the name Stonewall and the Mattachine Society and could have been a generic queer riot that could have occurred anywhere. If Nigel had dropped all pretence that this was about the iconic event itself and simply allowed these characters to develop within their own story, then I might have appreciated this effort a bit more.

One element that does work is the doomed love affair with the extremely closeted Vinnie (Bruce MacVittie) and his lover, the adopted Mother of the Stonewall Drag Queens, Bostonia (Duane Boutte). I would have loved to have seen these two given their own story. On the other hand, the love triangle that develops between Mattie, La Miranda, and Ethan felt forced. I suspect that the only reason for it's existence was to give heft to the intellectual debate between the conformity advocated by the Mattachine Society and the radical queer anti-assimilation position staked out by the flaming drag queens.

Beyond that, there is little worth talking about. The acting is somewhat variable with the strongest performances given by Guillermo Díaz as La Miranda, the sassy and fierce drag queen who refuses to cry and Bruce MacVittie as the conflicted manager of the Stonewall Inn. The musical numbers that the drag queens lip sync to and serve as a sort of greek chorus, are fun to watch at the beginning but become grating through overuse.

In the end, Stonewall is a disappointing effort. Had Nigel given his characters their own story, rather then trying to hammer them to fit the events of the Stonewall Riots, he could have succeeded in making a more memorable and compelling motion picture.

Recommended with qualifications. Those who will not mind a watered down version of what happened at the Stonewall Inn, may find some value here, otherwise, there is little reason in seeking this out.

The Rating


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