Terence Nance (An Oversimplification of Her Beauty) Talks Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall

A filmmaker writes about Emmerich's much-derided historical drama both before and after watching it.

I’m supposed to write about Stonewall but the terrible reviews have completely killed my vibe, so as a result I’m writing this piece posthumously – which is just a euphemism for maaaad late (the movie came out two weeks ago). But really, what has yet to be said about this movie? My vibe has been kilt, especially given that all of the critics, reviewers and think-piece bloggers are all up and through my lane. I’m the one who is supposed to take the well-meaning white directors to task with grandiose takedowns of their shitty white supremacist movies… (Ahem.)

So, just so I’m not bored to death with the flagellation of dead horses, to mix it up a little I’m going to write about this so-called movie before watching it, then I’m going to attempt to watch and see if the movie that I expected to take place before my eyes actually comes to pass.

Ready. Set. Go:

I bet there is a scene in the movie where the square-chinned white guy stands in a field of crops contemplating his future. They will probably be cornfields used in an unironic way.

If this happened, I missed it.

I bet the square-chinned white guy who never existed and saved the entire LGBTQI community from persecution will at some point put on his mother’s makeup and be castigated for said act. No, scratch that. I bet they considered having a scene in which our dreamed-up, straight-acting white guy lead puts on his mother’s makeup or walks in her heels and is attacked by his father. Then I bet this was scrapped after they saw Episode Six of Empire.

As expected this didn’t happen, but the cutting room floor residue of this scene was still in the movie.

I’d bet money that he will fall in love with the popular boy at school and I bet that this boy will be blond and also square-chinned and hyper masculine.

Nailed it! (Except he was a very segzy brunette guy.)

I bet they have sex in a barn. No, the locker room.

Almost nailed it! They were OUTSIDE a barn.

I’m thinking there is a sequence where the lead overhears or casually participates in an overtly homophobic conversation amongst his other square-chinned white peers. That said, I’m sure it will be made apparent by his facial expressions that this convo is tearing him up inside. This scene will, I’m sure, get an eye roll from me.

BUYAKASHA! Got ’em again. This basically happens. At school, students are shown an educational film warning against the sexual perversion of homosexuals. Danny laughs at the film during a moment in which a gay person is the butt of a joke or being ridiculed. He does so in order to throw off those who would suspect him of sexual deviance (mainly his father, who is also the school’s football coach).

I bet shitty Norman Rockwell paintings are all over the mood board for the first act in Kansas.

It was in Indiana but hilariously, the trans woman he befriends keeps joking with him, saying he’s from Kansas.

I bet there will be a long bus ride that shows the vast natural beauty of our country and will be designed to put things in perspective. I bet some shitty Hank Williams song or a really great Nick Cave song or even a just-OK Guthrie or Dylan tune will play over said cliché montage.

Missed it or didn’t happen.

I bet there are no ppl of color in this completely fictitious flyover state that is home to this completely fictitious character. I bet I will be vexed at the fact that after arriving in NYC there will be no comment about the fact that he must now interact with people of color for the first time and his acclimation to NYC will be more or less solely about acclimating to a cultural space that is more accepting of queerness and not deal with the other facets of said fictional person’s identity and specifically how these other layers afford him privilege or access or persecution or anything else in his new social surroundings.


I bet he will meet mad black ppl. Trans ppl, ppl who speak Spanish, ppl from India and Japan, etc., etc., but I bet that he will still end up falling for a white guy in NYC and that all of his relationships with POCs will be that of the magical negro variety, i.e. they will be present in his life – and thus this movie – for the sole purpose of teaching him lessons, i.e. how “real” the struggle really is FUHREAL and, of course, how to be jubilant despite said super real struggle.

SIMSALABIM! I’m on a roll now… I’m feelin’ myself (Miley, what’s good?) There are two scenes designed to remind us that for the POC trans women, life is dangerous and really high stakes. The main scene was very cliché. Ray, our lead’s bestie and main confidant / gay parent, is beaten by a john and in this moment of vulnerability spills her guts about how she has been trickin’ since she was three years old and has been in these streets living hand to mouth survivin’ and how he don’t know the struggle fo real ’cause Kansas ain’t the LES, homie, etc. etc. The Magical Negro / POC facilitating, via monologue, our Great White Hope’s process of emotional maturity. All that said, the actor who played Ray did a pretty OK job with the role. Started off a little rocky, but given how terrible the writing is, he arrived at something close to believability and emotional resonance.

I bet that the central image of physical brutalization in the film will be that of a white male cop brutalizing a young white man. I will, in reaction to this image, craft a conspiracy theory in my subconscious that will theorize that this juxtaposition is an act of appropriative sabotage designed to co-opt people of color’s contemporary struggle against the American government for human rights.

I won’t celebrate being right about this, but I was exactly right. There is a five-minute scene of Danny (the white guy who never existed) being beaten savagely by the police. He wears the scars of this beating for the entire movie. As if to remind us that he too is a (fictional) victim. But Ray, the Spanish-speaking trans woman (who is a composite of real people), is also beaten by a john. We of course do not see this beating happen, we are not shown her story visually; we are shown her wounds, but not her fight. Even more egregious, Martha P, a 100 percent real person, is said to have been violently murdered. This drama is relegated to a postscript. Danny’s fictional ass-whoopin’, however, is worthy of a whole day of shooting with fight choreography, period sets and lots of special effects makeup. This, my friends, is WHITE MUTHAFUCKING SUPREMACY.

I bet I can’t imagine how clunky the dialogue is.

It’s worse than you ever could have imagined. Especially some of the actors trying to play trans women. Also the Stonewall scene with the brick is literally the most didactic dialogue ever to make it into the final cut of a theatrically released film.

I bet even though I haven’t seen Rent, the musical or the film, that the tone of the film will remind me of Rent and then — as if to spite me for my unsubstantiated disdain — the universe will implant the un-funkiest, cheesiest, most vomit-in-my-mouth song ever made in my head. 525,600 minutes!

It did remind me of the torture chamber that is Rent.

I bet there will be a voiceover.

I think there might have been one briefly.

I bet there will be men with wet T-shirts.

Sort of. It seemed to be raining during the riots, or maybe ppl were just really sweaty.

I bet straight male actors will play trans women, which I should be cool with but I bet I won’t be down with it because they won’t nail the gesticulations and general feel and will be — in all their good-intentioned altruistic artiness — unaware that they are denying roles to deserving trans actresses.

Ray was pretty OK. The person playing Marsha P was not very good at all and the camera seemed afraid of that character. Every shot of her is underlit, and when she talks the camera avoids close-ups and seems to cut through her dialogue in order to get it over with.

I was very impressed by Vladimir Alexis, the actor who played Cong. That kid is a star.

I bet the photography will look like Jeunet’s shitty movies. (It must be said, he’s made a few masterpieces.)

I will say this film looked way better than MicMacs and was very graphic photographically. I was kind of into the look; even the kind of soundstage vibe didn’t bother me as much as I’d anticipated it would.

I bet I’ll wonder why they didn’t let Terry Gilliam take a crack at this.

Shoulda happened.

I bet I’ll wonder why they didn’t let Lee Daniels make this happen. I’m not a fan, but this woulda been a masterpiece in Uncle Lee’s hands.

Shoulda happened for real.

I bet one of the Black or Brown or Spanish-speaking characters from “da hood” will fall in love with square-jawed Danny and he will be the first one to tell her she is beautiful and Danny will pull this poor hookin’ trans lady out of the gutter with his Midwestern charm and upgrade her like only a white-guy version of Beyoncé could. Danny probably won’t reciprocate because he probably doesn’t swing that way, but he will probably keep his groupies in the friend zone and lament that he loves them just not that way.

Basically happens EXACTLY as written above. The white boy plays him like a herb, but in a way that feels stupid and mono-normative (i.e. assuming that the cultural / moral norm is a monogamous relationship orientation). And then of course Ray falls in love with Danny and Danny “is incapable of loving her back.” (This incapacity goes un-interrogated.)

And now the obligatory rant to wrap it all up…

At the end of the day, this movie is just a fictional story about a fictional white guy who was ostracized for being gay. As a fictional movie, it’s definitely an acceptable, mediocre, middle-of-the-road, mainstream, fish-out-of-water, coming-of-age story. It’s not that bad of a film if it is evaluated as a movie about a fictional guy. It only becomes a horrible movie when you take this vanilla, ho-hum but forgivable movie and try and use it to colonize / invade actual American history that happened to actual humans who suffered real abuse.

What was strangest to me is how imprecise and clumsy this racist colonization process is. There are all kinds of Captain Obvious scenes that “foreshadow” the fake history that anti-climactically come and go in the third act. Case in point: there is one scene where Danny gets all hot and bothered about the inert gay right activists who think they can change society by blending in and wearing suits. He, on the other hand, “feels like he wants to break something.”

** forehead slap ***

Furthermore, the movie reveals itself to be obsessed with convincing us that this fake person, this S1m0ne, threw the brick. Near the end of the movie, Danny – in response to his sister’s desire to attend the first gay rights parade and watch him march – mentions that she is his “brick-throwing sister.”

** forehead slap squared ***

It’s also clumsy because the film is politically incoherent. It flip-flops: It’s a film about gay rights that centralizes a straight-acting white man so it can be more “relatable.” This in and of itself is a transphobic act assuming that one gender identity is more relatable or acceptable than another. It’s also a film about gay rights in the ’60s that is wildly “sex negative.” On two occasions, it visualizes sex work as a hellacious horror that Danny must endure. The second time Danny is forced into sex work, he somehow finds himself on the set of Blue Velvet as David Lynch takes the reins of the film and a grotesque, elderly, cross-dressing john gets really close to Danny’s penis with his mouth. It’s a fantastical, oversimplified and politically tone-deaf visualization of sex work that is somehow housed in a film that celebrates LGBTQI rights and culture, a culture that spawned the idea of sex positivity and a progressive understanding of sex work.

The climactic scene is politically incoherent in another way that is so conceptually nonsensical, it is still blowing my mind. There’s from the normal dumb shit of just inserting random-ass plot gambits that move characters through time and space in ways which make no sense, but the real craziness is in the visualization of violent revolt in response to police brutality.

So, in Stonewall, gay white men – our fictional hero included – engage in acts of direct violence against the police. There is a sequence in which several gay white men forcibly lock policemen inside the Stonewall and attempt to set it on fire. Soon after this, riot police show up and these same white men take lighter fluid, spray it onto the police directly and attempt to light the police on fire directly. A little later, as the riots die down, Danny leads a small hit squad who, seemingly unprovoked, attack a group of uniformed police officers; one shot shows Danny hitting a policeman over the head with a large metal trashcan, knocking him out, taking his hat and putting it on. They all but dance on top of the bodies of the police.

None of these white men are shown to be arrested in retaliation, none are shown to be even beaten, and Danny wakes up the next morning and says to his friends: “After last night, I feel soooooo alive!!!!”




First of all, did any of this shit happen? Because if it did happen like this, then I’m inclined to believe that white men did lead this revolution. If this is how it happened and gay men were allowed to attack the police and literally attempt to burn them alive and not be arrested, let alone killed in cold blood…. I’ll save you the shoe-on-the-other-foot exercise of imagining if a black gay man had sprayed lighter fluid on an approaching police officer and lit him on fire.

So. Wait, OK. So then this couldn’t have happened, right?

If this is how it happened, then this movie 100 percent endorses vigilante, armed, deadly action against the police in retaliation for police brutality. This movie visualizes this violence as fair, just, natural and, most of all, effective. The movie directly links the action of rioting at Stonewall to the genesis of the gay rights movement and all but credits the riots for our current blissful state of marriage equality. And just in case you were confused about the film’s stance on violence in the service of social change, there is a foil character who tries to get Danny to not throw the fake brick that he never brandished in real life in his imaginary hand. He says something like, “This isn’t the way,” just before Danny anti-climactically throws the brick, as if to say, “Fuck yo respectability politics, cuz!”

So, question: Is Emmerich endorsing violent, vigilant, armed action against the police in Black people’s current struggle against the police for human rights? Are we to take this movie as an endorsement of violence? I’m going to go ahead and say Emmerich is not down for Black people attempting to set riot police on fire to spark a protest movement. I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t be down for us burning down a CVS. I’d bet he is only cool with white guys speaking fists and fire to power. I usually win my bets in regards to Emmerich. Check my record above.

Terence Nance is an artist originally from Dallas, TX. His first feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and won a Gotham Independent Film Award. The album of the same title will be released later this year.