The film begins in 1969 as a dewy-eyed man-child stands on the corner of Charles Street and Seventh Avenue, staring out wistfully at the glittering metropolis before him. He is a painful representation of every country boy who has ever been thrust into the big city. For the ficitional Danny Winters, Manhattan is a sanctuary as much as it is a daunting city. Hundreds of miles away from his hyper-conservative, bigoted parents, it is a place where he can allow his identity as a gay man to surface freely. Danny’s story is the story of many, perhaps, but it’s not the story this film should have told.
Almost immediately, Danny is hit on by a sleazy, overweight middle-aged trans woman. He is subsequently rescued from this interaction by Ray/Ramona, another irritatingly cliche trans character of the more likable, sassy best friend variety. Ray/Ramona fascinates Danny and introduces him to her posse of sexual misfits. They are as flamboyant, rambunctious and impudent as almost every caricature of trans women misleadingly portrays. Danny soon becomes their golden “Columbia boy,” and they become his lovable support team. Ramona soon becomes Danny’s closest friend, and she takes it upon herself to show him the ins and outs of queer life in Manhattan. Ramona does a thorough job showing Danny the ropes of her lifestyle, from navigating joblessness and near-homelessness, to dodging brutal police raids of gay bars and hangouts. She familiarizes Danny with the gay prostitution industry and the aggressive, homophobic community. Danny has a leg up from the rest of his friends because he is white, not trans and a student at Columbia University.
The film certainly attempts to show the painful reality of this lifestyle, but it fails to demonstrate the genuine brutality that people like Ramona faced. Perhaps if the script were a bit more than a conglomerate of hackneyed interactions, the film could have had more of an emotional impact. The film’s content had the potential to make for a very moving film, but poor execution left me unmoved.
The film is supposed to portray the tensions that led to to the historic Stonewall riots. These riots were the first collective, forceful backlash of the LBGT community against the many, violent police raids on their gatherings. The particular police raid that sparked the riots took place at the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay/trans hangout. The riots are often cited as a precursor to the gay rights movement.
Unfortunately, the film does not adequately demonstrate these building tensions. The film certainly shows members of the LBGT community as unhappy and disgusted with the oppression they face, yet the characters have a bit of a jaded, “such is life” outlook on their difficulties. Danny is supposed to introduce a sense of hope and change in the community, but his character is uninspiring and flat. In the beginning of the movie Danny is awkward and somewhat inarticulate, and other than his acquisition of some sassy New Yorker mannerisms, he does not undergo much of a transformation as the film progresses. At one point, he is angry because he learns that being gay will prevent him from ever working for NASA. At another point, he is angry because he discovers his boyfriend is cheating on him. These instances are supposed to reflect his building frustrations with discrimination, but frankly, it never really feels like Danny’s frustrations are going anywhere.
Strangely, as it turns out, the awkward boy from Indiana without the slightest bit of charisma is the impetus for the riot. He throws the first brick, the community follows his lead and madness ensues. For no reason other than the fact that he is white, male and by some standards attractive, he gets to be the brave soul to ignite social upheaval.
If for “dramatic” purposes Director Roland Emmerich felt as though it were absolutely vital to zoom in on a single face during the riot, but the fact that that face was white and male is a gross misrepresentation of what the riots stood for. The film portrays the rioting crowd as disproportionately white and gay, failing to recognize the people of color and trans people who participated in the uprising. In doing so, Emmerich commits an egregious act of erasure in his attempt to display an uprising centered on the importance of inclusion. If nothing else, this film should serve as a grave reminder that the voices and stories of many remain tragically neglected by harmful historical inaccuracies and erasure.