Queer Films You Ought To Know: 1995’s “Stonewall”

Twenty years before Roland Emmerich's controversial biopic, Nigel Finch dramatized the birth of the movement.

Roland Emmerich’s take on the Stonewall riots hits theaters today, and many are angry the film whitewashes history. (It doesn’t help that Emmerich says he had to use a clean-cut white male protagonist to make the movie relatable to viewers.

I won’t weigh in until I see it for myself, but Emmerich has a high bar to clear to surpass Nigel Finch’s 1995 feature about the birth of the LGBT movement, also titled Stonewall.

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With a far smaller budget, a cast of unknowns and an unabashedly melodramatic script, it’s an energetic look at the weeks leading up to the riots that will get you hot and bothered. And angry. (You may even shed a tear or two.)

Though Finch’s film follows roughly the same path as Emmerich’s—and arguably does some whitewashing of its own—it wasn’t as much a history lesson as Emmerich’s sets out to be.

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Stonewall/Strand Releasing

And the emphasis the 1995 film put on queer people of color, particularly the drag queens who proudly populated Village gay bars, is especially noteworthy given the time it was made.

Comparisons will be impossible to avoid but, on its own terms, Stonewall remains a queer film you ought to know.
 

 

What’s It About?

“This is my story.”

So the story starts, under the careful dictation of La Miranda (Guillermo Díaz), a Latina drag queen who, along with several sisters, stomps the streets of Greenwich Village. They also perform at the titular bar—a seedy mafia-run joint that flouts the law prohibiting the sale of alcohol to homosexuals.

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It’s no surprise that La Miranda’s first number is “Boy From New York City.” As the queens coo in lip-synched harmony, fresh-faced Southern boy Matty Dean (Frederick Weller) arrives in the Big Apple, his endearing twang and puppy dog eyes belying a strength and sense of self he exhibits soon as he arrives on the gay scene.

Matty makes eyes at La Miranda and her gaggle of girls and, intrigued, follows them into the Stonewall Inn. He instantly feels at home, and easily talks trash with the bartender, Princess Ernestine.

The evening turns sour, however, as he experiences his first raid, when police brusquely force La Miranda’s head into a bucket of unsanitary water before arresting them both.

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As the film progresses, the two strike up a quick friendship, and then test the waters of romance. All the while, Matty becomes involved with the homophile movement—a straight-laced activist community which stands in stark contrast to the rowdy, multicultural bunch who go on stage at the Stonewall.

As Matty chafes at the confines of a movement that’s too timid to stand up to persecution, and La Miranda struggles with her own deep-seated fear of loss, they move toward the revolutionary night of June 28, 1969.

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Why Does It Matter?

The perfect use of drag. From the get go, La Miranda and a group of rotating queens are the storytellers here, a Greek chorus for the sexual revolution.

Finch’s vision is matched by a group of vivacious performances that give us a glimpse of what it was really like inside the Stonewall in 1969. (And a playlist that is pure ’60s girl-group heaven.)

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These queens lip-sync, narrate, comment and emote—sometimes straight to the camera. In a post-Office world that might seem corny, but it was fresh in 1995.

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Gay white male privilege check. Yes, Matty is another attractive blond twink protagonist, but Finch didn’t shy away from addressing what that meant in 1969.

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Stonewall contrasts the homogenized homophile movement with the rainbow of performers and patrons inside the Stonewall.

As Matty falls deeper into the homophile circle—hooking up with Ethan (Brendan Corbalis) when La Miranda becomes incensed at his denial of their relationship— he is immediately aware of the privileg ehe has over the drag queens and trans people he has come to know. (Unsurprisingly, Ethan and the others are not.)

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Matty and Miranda’s relationship feels organic, thanks in no small part to Diaz and Weller’s performances. So it’s all the more striking when Matty’s steamy shower scene with Ethan is paired with a La Miranda tricking—a not-so-subtle critique of the difference in access (to money, to stability) between the two.

STONEWALL, Guillermo Diaz (right), 1995, © Strand Releasing
Stonewall/Strand Releasing

Intimacy. Relationships of all sorts abound: Deep friendships, passionate flings, and even true romance. The characters reflect both the “free love” mentality of the day, and a longing to find the one person they can trust above all others.

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La Miranda’s drag mother, Bostonia (Duane Boutte), and her secret lover, Vinnie (Bruce MacVittie), care for each other deeply, though they fight bitterly about going public with their relationship.

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Watching them kiss, cuddle, and argue we’re reminded that, even as society was exploding, personal struggles and joy continued.

The burgeoning love between La Miranda and Matty Dean was exceptional for a film made 1995—and 2015, if we’re being honest. When was the last time a drag queen in a movie had a sex life?

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And what could easily have been a damsel in distress narrative is instead imbued with uniqueness and subtlety—a rarity, even in LGBT films.

Where Have I Seen Them Before?

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The Director. Stonewall was the lone feature film from Finch, a Brit who specialized in TV movies and docu-series. He died of AIDS-related causes while the film was in post-production, but was posthumously awarded the London Film Festival’s Audience Award.

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The Writer. Rikki Beadle-Blair was an activist with the Gay Liberation Front, and has worked professionally as a playwright, screenwriter, actor, and designer. His Stonewall screenplay won an Outfest award, he later helped craft groundbreaking LGBT shows like Metrosexuality and Noah’s Arc.

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The Actors. Out actor Guillermo Díaz has worked steadily since his star turn in Stonewall, with prominent roles in Half-Baked, Party Girl and I Think I Do, and on TV’s Weeds and Scandal.

He also whisked Britney Spears to safety in the “I Wanna Go” video.

Frederick Weller
In Plain Sight/USA Network

Frederick Weller attended Juilliard before nabbing the part of Matty Dean, and has had his fair share of Law and Order credits. But he also starred on CBS’ In Plain Sight, and landed the plum biopic part of Brian Wilson in the Emmy-winning TV movie from 2000 The Beach Boys: An American Family.

No More Questions. Just See It!

Class dismissed!