While the film is a work of fiction, Finch makes the unusual directorial choice of including documentary-style interview footage with several people who were at the Stonewall Inn during the uprising. Finch also intersperses lip synch numbers performed by the actors throughout the film to function as something of a Greek chorus.
Matty Dean, a young gay man, arrives in New York City and heads for Greenwich Village. He falls in with crossdressing sex worker La Miranda and friends, who take him to Stonewall Inn. There is a police raid and Matty and La Miranda are arrested. They are bailed out by Bostonia, the African-American "mother" of the queens who hang out at Stonewall, and the secret lover of Vinnie, the deeply closeted mafioso who runs Stonewall. Matty and La Miranda go back to her place where she receives her draft notice. Matty attends a meeting of the Mattachine Society, where he meets Burt and Ethan. The group is planning a picket at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Ethan and Matty witness an initiation of sorts as a young man named José becomes the persona Camelia. After the ceremony they return to La Miranda's place and have sex.
Matty spends time with Ethan, who is a writer under a pseudonym for a homophile magazine. La Miranda reports to the induction center in full drag and is ordered to go for psychological evaluation. La Miranda is terrified because of former bad experiences with psychiatrists, so Matty dons her clothes and meets with the doctor in her place, securing a rejection from military service for her as a "sexual deviant." On the subway ride home, Matty tells La Miranda he loves her.
At a Mattachine meeting, Matty is disgusted by the guest speaker, a psychiatrist who discourses on the then-current disease model of homosexuality, and leaves. After the meeting Burt, Ethan and Matty argue about it on their way to meet with a reporter and photographer from the Village Voice newspaper. The group stages a "sip-in," trying to illustrate discriminatory alcohol service laws by being refused service but no one refuses to serve them until they go to Stonewall. At the bar La Miranda and Ethan meet and Ethan treats her mockingly. La Miranda realizes that Matty hasn't told his Mattachine friends about her and storms out. Matty follows and they argue about La Miranda's refusal to conform and Matty's feeling the need to be with more masculine men. Matty seeks out Ethan and they begin an affair.
Vinnie points out a clinic he calls the "Palace of Dreams" and tells Bostonia that he wants her to have sex reassignment surgery so that they can marry, but she is opposed to the idea.
Following the Philadelphia picket, Ethan takes Matty to Fire Island. Given the choice between Ethan's acceptance of discrimination and La Miranda's defiance, Matty chooses La Miranda and they reconcile.
It is the day of Judy Garland's death. Bostonia watches the television coverage. To cheer her up, Vinnie takes her out in full drag in public for the first time. They have ice cream at a fancy restaurant, their open affection drawing disapproving stares and are asked to leave by the manager.
As they wake up together the next morning, Vinnie asks Bostonia if he's ever told her that he loves her. She says no. Vinnie suddenly commits suicide with a bullet through the head and Bostonia becomes hysterical. Vinnie has left her a large amount of cash and scrawled "I LOVE YOU" on a mirror in lipstick.
That night at Stonewall there's another raid. Several of the queens are arrested, including Bostonia. She smashes a police officer in the face and is attacked by other cops. When other queens fight back, touching off the riots that would mark the beginning of the gay community's advocacy movement for its rights.Guillermo Díaz as La Miranda
Frederick Weller as Matty Dean
Brendan Corbalis as Ethan
Duane Boutte as Bostonia
Bruce MacVittie as Vinnie
Peter Ratray as Burt
Dwight Ewell as Helen Wheels
Matthew Faber as Mizz Moxie
Michael McElroy as Princess Ernestine
Luis Guzmán as Vito
Joey Dedio as Angelo
Although the film is based on true events, there are some factual inaccuracies. These include:The sip-in did not include the Stonewall Inn as a stop. Service was refused at a bar called Julius. This action took place in 1966, not 1969.
The picket in Philadelphia, known as the Annual Reminder, took place each July 4 from 1965 to 1969, later in the summer than depicted in the film.
Many of those in attendance at the riots deny categorically that Judy Garland's death was a motivating factor.
- The Shangri-Las – "Give Him a Great Big Kiss"
- The Butterflies – "Gee Baby Gee"
- The Shangri-Las – "Sophisticated Boom"
- The Shirelles – "Ooh Poo Pah Doo"
- The Shangri-Las – "Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)"
- The Ad Libs – "Boy from New York City"
- Judy Garland – "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart"
- Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles – "Down the Aisle"
- Bessie Banks – "Go Now"
- Judy Garland – "Over the Rainbow"
- Barenaked Ladies – "What a Good Boy"
- The Shangri-Las – "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" (Hani's Kiss Mix)
Stonewall opened theatrically on September 3, 1996, its widest release being 10 venues. Closing on December 12, 1996, it grossed $692,400.
The film received positive reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 63% score based on 8 reviews, with an average rating of 6.5/10.1995 London Film Festival - Audience Award
1996 San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival - Audience Award for Best Feature
1996 Outfest - Grand Jury Award Honorable Mention - Outstanding Screenwriting - Rikki Beadle-Blair
Stonewall was released on Region 1 DVD on October 26, 1999. The film is not available on streaming sites and is difficult to find due to the low numbers of DVD sales in the 90s.
Stonewall was released on VHS tape in 1996 by Tartan Video. This video was a Virgin exclusive and is out of print.
The film has now been made into a stage play by screenwriter Beadle-Blair and premiered in London and The Edinburgh Festival in 2007.