›› Stonewall ‹‹

a film by Nigel Finch.

1995 | 99 mins | UK - US.

a compelling testament to the night when Stonewall let its political voice be heard.

Dave says:

As American as apple pie comes this engaging depiction of the night when a handful of drag queens caused a riot; albeit perhaps not that much of one, but one that nonetheless found the police encounter a group of out 'n' proud queens who were no longer prepared to take the homophobic attitudes of the authorities any more.

Not that somewhat naïve country boy Matty Dean (Frederick Weller) knows that yet. Fresh to New York City and only too keen to speed his way to the gay bars of Greenwich Village, the boy is set to see his dreams of living an openly gay lifestyle get off to a bad start, when his quiet drink in the Stonewall Inn is subject to a visit from the long arm of the law. Not that there was anything new in that. For this is a time when police raids and sexual harassment were common place and what you let risk for just being your homosexual / drag queened self.

Yet even then love could find a way, as Matty Dean is soon to discover when he finds himself falling for closeted lawyer Ethan (Brendan Corbalis) as well as the charms of La Miranda (Guillermo Díaz); a drag queen armed with her personal liberation front. Not that this courts her any favour with stylish Bostonia (Duane Boutté), nor the police for that matter and in particular those officers on duty in the early hours of June 28th, 1969. For imprisoned in a world of injustice, some would come to see no way out but in drink or suicide. Others however would decide to fight the system and now the fight became a riot. And this time Matty Dean, La Miranda, Bostonia and a host of other drag queens in standing up to the ingrained discrimination and sheer brutality of the police, would come to take one giant stiletto heeled step forward for sexual equality and gay rights.

If all this sounds familiar, then it should. For this moving film is based on fact. That fact being the Stonewall riot of 1969; an event that would come to see self-hate and despair replaced with hope and empowerment. Yet what specific act set in motion the riot, appears to have been somewhat lost to time. Some say, as this work suggests, that the answer lies with the death days earlier of gay icon Judy Garland, given those present while accustomed to the homophobic insults and violence from the NYPD, were not going to take any disrespect by the police to Judy. Certainly this is the scenario offered by some, even if it may well be an apocryphal account of what actually took place. Then again, does the nature of the spark that ignited the Stonewall flame really matter, when such would culminate in the end of an era in which raids on gay bars were commonplace, police leniency arrived with a price tag attached to it and when consensual sex between two men was illegal in every State of America, bar one.

Complete with a series of lip-synched production numbers performed in fabulous drag queen style, this film, the second in the Stonewall trilogy, in paying a fictionalized homage to the riot, equally delivers a story of love set to the classic songs of The Ad Libs, The Shangri-Las and The Shirelles to name but three. This however is not to say that this feature is not without its drawbacks and whilst vividly showcasing the politics and prejudice of the period, for some this work fails to adequately detail the events leading up to the Stonewall riot and the consequences thereafter. Then again, the noted documentaries Before Stonewall and After Stonewall aptly address any omissions present.

But it is to say that Finch has delivered an engrossing film that walks with considerable skill the tightrope between fact and fiction and therein between a history lesson and pure entertainment, as seen through the eyes of La Miranda and her account of what took place that night. To that end and as expected indie favourite Díaz shines in the role, as equally does Weller as the new kid on the block. Yet for many the film belongs to Bruce MacVittie as Vinnie; the owner of the Stonewall Inn and a man who cannot bring himself to publicly show his deep love for his transvestite partner Bostonia, as played with sublime elegance by Boutté who frankly steals the show.

All of which makes for a compelling testament to the night when Stonewall let its political voice be heard and in doing so, resulted in the birth of the gay pride movement itself. Yet this film also marks the celluloid swansong of highly respected and greatly missed director Nigel Finch (1949 1995) who here bowed out to critical acclaim. Simply wondrous.

›› revised: Wednesday, 17th May, 2023.

Gay Visibility - overt | Nudity - bare-arsed cheek | Overall - file under ... 4 stars

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