Stonewall Is Bad, But How Bad? What Critics Are Saying

Photo: Roadside Attractions

The historical drama Stonewall has been plagued with bad press since the release of its first trailer in August, with accusations of whitewashing and misrepresenting minorities running rampant. A sliver of hope remained, though, as director Roland Emmerich declared the film his "passion project" despite the plot distorting historical events — most notably, that Indiana farm-boy protagonist Danny Winters throws the first brick that instigates the violent Stonewall Riots of 1969. What else, then, makes the film so terrible? Where do we begin. Here's what the critics are saying so far, and we'll be updating as more reviews keep coming in:

“Aside from its offensiveness, Stonewall is, plain and simple, a terribly made movie, with an alarmingly clunky script by acclaimed playwright Jon Robin Baitz ('I’m too angry to love anyone right now' is one howler—of course delivered by Danny to poor, still pining Ray) and a production design that makes late 1960s Christopher Street look like Sesame Street. The story plunks along, until the riots rather unceremoniously, and confusingly, begin, and then the movie hobbles lamely to a close, giving us a resolution to the family-strife plot that’s the least interesting thing in the movie. Emmerich takes one of the most politically charged periods of the last century and turns it into a bland, facile coming-of-age story ... So how long until someone throws a brick through the screen?” —Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

“The release of the first trailer for Stonewall sparked early controversy over what appeared to be the marginalization of the transgender, black, Latino and lesbian insta-activists long credited with manning the front lines of the spontaneous 1969 riots that heralded a new era in gay rights. Instead, the story is framed through the experience of the very white, very wholesome Indiana refugee Danny (Jeremy Irvine), who looks like he stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch jock dreamboat catalog. Diversity representation mostly functions as colorful window-dressing, with notes of humor pretty much confined to routine sassy attitude, and when the riot starts, the Wonder Bread lead gets to throw the first brick ... Some will quibble about the depiction of who led the charge (a minor lesbian character played by Joanne Vannicola is the first shown here violently resisting arrest), but the events portrayed and their enduring significance inevitably have a stirring impact. Besides, the degree to which urban legend has contributed over the decades to the Stonewall mythology probably makes factual accuracy irrelevant at this point.” —David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

“Director Roland Emmerich once blew up the White House with a giant alien spaceship. In retrospect this was one of his subtler moments. Stonewall, an outrageously misjudged drama that flirts with the story of the birth of the gay rights movement, is much more grandiose ... It’s still difficult for gay cinema to pass into the mainstream. Emmerich, who put his own money into making the film, should be cheered for giving it a shot. Unfortunately the compromises he’s made leave Stonewall feeling neutered. A member of the Mattachine Society makes a speech about how gay men should assimilate. 'Wearing a suit and tie will make them realise they’re just like you,' he says. Stonewall tries the same trick. By trying to disguise itself as a coming-of-age romance, it hides the real story underneath.” —Henry Barnes, The Guardian

“The historical drama, which nominally chronicles the gay liberation riots outside New York’s Stonewall bar in the summer of 1969, is so big, broad, and dumb, it doesn’t feel so much like Oscarbait as it does a Broadway adaptation of Oscarbait. It is formally inconsistent (it’s a history lesson, no it’s a romance, no it’s group therapy, no it’s an ensemble comedy, no it’s a police procedural) and uniformly miserable. The acting is so pronounced and deliberate it pairs woefully well with the ersatz backdrops, which always look like they were shot on a soundstage (they were — for financial reasons, Emmerich shot in Montreal, not New York) ... You get more of a sense of what it’s like to visit SeaWorld in the notoriously abysmal Jaws 3D than you do what it was like to patronize Stonewall in Stonewall. Stonewall teaches you about as much about being gay as the Aristocats taught you about being an aristocrat.” —Rich Juzwiak, Gawker

Here, at any rate, [Emmerich], with scriptwriter Jon Robin Baitz, has given the famous 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, prompted by a police raid on a gay bar, a wholly conventional, soapy Hollywood treatment ... It is odd that Emmerich, who thinks nothing of flooding, freezing or alien-invading the entire world, should have made so little of these actual riots, which actually continued for several days but here look just like a slightly rough night out. But there we are: this Stonewall is sanitized, canonized.” —David Sexton, The Evening Standard

“Seeing historical events through a personal lens is a time honoured movie tradition, but Stonewall almost lets its tale of a young gay man finding his way in New York City overshadow its account of the 1969 riots that give the film its title and led to the birth of the gay liberation movement. That might not have mattered if the personal story had been more satisfying, but as it is this passion project from blockbuster director Roland Emmerich (who last stepped out of the mainstream with his 2011 Shakespearean thriller Anonymous) feels like a strangely squandered opportunity.” —John Hazelton, Screen Daily

“The result of this fictional history has already ruffled a few feathers with advocacy groups peeved that the film frames a group of gay men as the leaders of a revolution started by trans women of color. While Emmerich’s intentions may be pure, he lacks the delicacy, intelligence, and skill to do right by a premise rife with potential for disaster — a topic in which the man is all too well-versed ... The thick blanket of badness that covers the entirety of the film doesn’t do its problematic subtextual politics any favors, either. At the very least, Emmerich can hold his head high in the knowledge that he wasn’t responsible for the astonishingly thick script — that distinction belongs to Jon Robin Baitz, the pen behind such stirring moments as one during the climactic riot, in which our hero raises his fist to the heavens and screams 'GAY POWER!' Come to think of it, that’s really what most of the film feels like: a fist shoved in a face and words howled into ears.” —Charles Bramesco, Indiewire

“Though it delivers disaster-movie specialist Roland Emmerich’s usual mix of pop iconography, cornball Americana, and conspiracy theory, and benefits from some better-than-average performances in hokey roles, Stonewall is a farrago. On the one hand, there’s the Oz-ification of a pivotal episode in the LGBT rights movement, with the aforementioned hunk—named Danny (Jeremy Irvine), but often addressed as 'Kansas,' despite being from Indiana—learning to find his way back home with the help of black and Latino street hustlers. On the other, there’s Danny’s last-minute transformation from a completely passive protagonist into the first rioter to throw a brick in the early hours of June 28, 1969, screaming 'Gay power!' as though he’d just been stabbed with a high-dosage EpiPen.” —Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, A.V. Club

“'Stonewall' somehow manages to be simultaneously bloated and anemic, overstuffed and underpopulated. It’s a story about a true historical event that spends way too much time on its fictional lead character; the tone is so erratic and artificial that it wouldn’t feel surprising if the movie suddenly became a musical. And as the film gets duller and duller, you find yourself wishing these characters would break into song, just for variety’s sake.” —Alonso Duralde, The Wrap

“But let’s be fair: 'Stonewall' is no disaster, and to all those waiting to tear it apart, perhaps the best that can be said is that Emmerich’s film is neither as bad nor as insensitive as predicted, though it’s politics certainly are problematic — especially as regards its lead character, who might as well be straight, so far removed are his concerns from everyone else in the ensemble ... With the exception of Beauchamp’s breakout performance as Ray — a luminous, can’t-look-away contribution deserving of the character’s name — the movie would benefit from better acting all around, as Emmerich stages so many wooden character scenes en route to the explosive riots. And yet, he doesn’t seem to have distilled the most powerful lesson of his disaster-movie career: Audiences want to see The Wave. 'Stonewall' cuts that short, and by condensing days of protest into a single night, deprives them of both the full spectacle and subsequent impact of events that changed LGBTQ history forever.” —Peter Dubruge, Variety