Party for Your Right to Fight
Uptown Theatre, starts Friday
THE NEW YORK Times recently dissed Stonewall for resembling "Contemporary Gay History 101," as if this first-ever feature about the legendary queer uprising of 1969 should be expected to teach at the graduate level. True, those looking for a complex treatment of the birth of gay pride will probably come away disappointed; this upbeat "fictionalization" based on Martin Duberman's historical narrative creates just enough composite characters and hypothetical situations to make its lessons register smoothly. But part of Stonewall's charm is how openly it acknowledges that its version of the truth is only one among millions. As its drag queen heroine LaMiranda (Guillermo Diaz) puts it: "There's as many Stonewall stories as there's gay queens in New York. And that's a shitload of stories, baby."
Named after the Greenwich Village gay bar whose patrons fought back against police brutality, Stonewall is an event of mythic proportions, its importance a symbol exceeding the details of what actually happened. So it's not surprising that the film's vision of drag queens as the star players during the riot--complete with an obviously fictional moment of dolled-up chorus girls kicking out a civil disobedience routine to the tune of "Howdy Doody"--has raised a few hackles. For his part, Duberman has publicly disagreed with the prominence given to queens at the exclusion of others, and has suggested that the popularity of recent mainstream drag movies might have partly informed the script's perspective. But if Stonewall telescopes history with the particular intent of crossing over, that's the modus operandi of any bio-pic. And in the wake of To Wong Foo and The Birdcage, the movie offers a much-needed revisionist take on drag queens as people with authentic emotions and political views, who might rather act up than act cute.
Diaz, an actor with natural charisma but not a star's obligation to flaunt it, gives his LaMiranda a measure of fierce determination from the first scenes. With bell bottoms and bared midriff, high heels and an impeccably coiffed black wig, this sassy downtown gal says she "don't do angry"; when the cops bust into the Stonewall on a routine visit to harass the clientele, LaMiranda resists simply by maintaining her fabulous composure. One of the movie's points is that political defiance was unavoidable for gay people under the persistent threat of intrusion from the straight world. (In fact, current patrons of the Saloon might relate to this phenomenon.) Still, Stonewall does reveal a range of activist attitudes: The thoroughly modern Matty Dean (Frederick Weller), newly arrived from down south, is eager to agitate and initially unaware of the consequences; the regal queen Bostonia (Duane Boutte) is opposed to stirring up trouble; and preppie activist Ethan (Brendan Corbalis) is committed to fighting the system from the inside, believing that even public sympathy for the perceived "illness" of queers would be a good step.
Despite LaMiranda's claim that this is "my Stonewall legend," the intended surrogate for the mass audience is Matty, a mostly bland observer whom the queens of color tease for being "whitebread" and like "Bobby Dylan in a coma." These jokes help to distribute the script's sympathies more evenly, but the story is still weighted toward the clean-cut, suburban-type boy who, romantically torn between Ethan's meeting room and LaMiranda's mean streets, climactically chooses to be real, like the song says. But by working this out within a conventional love-triangle melodrama, the late director Nigel Finch manages to send a righteous personal-is-political message: Matty helps LaMiranda get politics, and has his own reconfirmed by deciding against Ethan and his ineffectual demonstrations. Likewise, the impressively staged riot scene follows directly from mounting pressures in the characters' personal lives--the one who throws the first punch here has an entire plot-full of reasons. And who's to say the death of Judy Garland wasn't also a major factor?
As much as Do the Right Thing, Stonewall comes out in favor of spontaneous revolution, whether on the streets or in the boudoir. The only drag is that the film's less fashionable characters--Ethan and his fellow suit-and-tie activists of the Mattachine Society--come off as naive twits whose conservative strategy of acting "normal" is made to seem the only possible method of organized protest. Otherwise, Finch's style is universal, nearly to a fault. He allows room for both a documentary prologue and a hot shower scene, plus, whenever the narrative needs to apply more makeup, some out-of-nowhere musical numbers of the queens lip-synching to The Shangri-las. Actually, the bouncy vibe turns Stonewall into a well-earned celebration of victory, even as the parallels it draws between then and now are a reminder of how much is still left to fight. CP
A premiere screening of Stonewall to benefit Evergreen Chronicles, a gay and lesbian literary journal, will be held Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Suburban World. Actor Guillermo Diaz will be in attendance to answer questions; call 870-7436.
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