A tedious march to a milestone
By Dan Kois
Friday, July 16, 2010
For a movie about a groundbreaking gay rebellion, "Stonewall
Uprising" plays it much too straight.
That's not to say that this documentary, directed by Kate Davis and
David Heilbroner, doesn't tell a story worth telling. The battle
between New York City gays and lesbians and the NYPD in the summer of
1969 -- sparked by the June 28 police raid on the Stonewall Inn in
the West Village -- marked the birth of the modern gay rights movement.
But oh, if only it weren't so "American Experience"-y! That is to
say, "Stonewall Uprising" is another in that august line of
thoughtful, well-meaning PBS documentaries, and it follows a tedious
narrative path, familiar to anyone who has been enlightened if not
quite inspired by "American Experience" in the past. Historical
context, archival image, talking head; lather, rinse, repeat.
The historical context, in this case details of just how terrible gay
life was in America pre-Stonewall, is unsurprising. America was as
square as can be in those days; file footage of suburban dads mowing
lawns doesn't really add that much. And even in New York, gay life
carried risks; police raided mafia-run gay bars, dressing in drag was
illegal, any arrest brought public disgrace. And no one ever fought
back. To be gay in the 1960s, even in New York, was to be acquiescent
The night of the riots must have been a sight to see. So it's a
near-fatal blow to "Stonewall Uprising" that there basically are no
sights to see. That's not entirely the filmmakers' fault. Were the
police to shut down a bar in the West Village tonight, Flickr and
YouTube would overflow with photo and video evidence in minutes. But
the initial Stonewall raid and riot went almost largely undocumented,
and the movie opens with a cautionary note: "Other images in this
film are either re-creations or drawn from events of the time."
So instead of Stonewall-specific film or photos, we get file footage
of 1960s-era gay New Yorkers in some bar, somewhere. Or maybe they're
actors pretending to be from the 1960s. Who can tell? Not the viewer,
since very little of the footage is identified. The constant visual
uncertainty casts a cloud over the documentary, especially when the
same video snippets are used multiple times to illustrate different
nights of upheaval and unrest.
Much more effective are the men and women who were there. Although
their testimony may not lift "Stonewall Uprising" above its TV-doc
roots, they are eloquent and frequently passionate. Fascinatingly,
the directors include an interview with Seymour Pine, the morals
officer who led the charge into the Stonewall; now retired, he has
wide, sorrowful eyes under his NYPD cap. Hearing his description of
being trapped inside the bar as a crowd of a thousand or more howled
outside makes you feel for him, even as "Stonewall Uprising" makes
you understand perfectly how years of systematic oppression led to a
community's liberating rage. ("It must have been terrifying for
them," one interviewee says of those cops. "I hope it was.")
For Stonewall, at its core, was the moment when gays and lesbians
stopped accepting institutional abuse and started fighting back. "The
police ran from us, the lowliest of the low," one man recalls, his
eyes shining with the memory of a night 41 years ago. "And it was fantastic."
Contains nothing objectionable.
Three films now on DVD look through the gay experience in America
By ROBERT W. BUTLER
Jul. 14, 2010
June was Gay Pride Month, which explains the DVD release of three
seminal films about the gay experience in America.
Watching "Before Stonewall" (1984), "After Stonewall" (1999) and
"Word Is Out" (1977) is a moving but weird experience.
If you're a young person gay or straight these documentaries
about life back when it wasn't safe to be out will be eye-openers.
For those who lived through the eras discussed, it's bound to raise
both good and bad memories.
As cultural documents, these three films are priceless, offering both
insights into a shadow world of repression and paranoia and a taste
of the joy experienced by men and women who finally were able to
openly be themselves.
"Before…" and "After Stonewall" are sold as a two-disc set. The
titles refer to NYC's Stonewall Inn, where its gay customers rioted
in June 1969 after yet another police raid. It was the violent birth
of the gay rights movement.
"Before Stonewall" (directed by Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg)
looks at nearly 70 years of gay life leading up to that moment.
Employing tons of fascinating archival footage as well as
talking-heads testimony from men and women who lived through it all,
the film dispassionately examines what it was like to be gay in the
early years of the last century.
Back then, psychiatrists viewed homosexuality as grounds for
institutionalization. You could be sent to jail for sending even
innocuous gay literature through the mail.
The film is divided by eras with special emphasis on World War II
(gays in the military, women in factories), the Cold War (McCarthyism
equated homosexuality with communism), the beat era (Allen Ginsberg
is interviewed) and the rising counterculture of the '60s.
"After Stonewall" (directed by John Scagliotti) chronicles the
following 30 years the sometimes painful attempts to organize
homosexuals (gay men and lesbians often didn't get along), gay
political empowerment (Harvey Milk, etc.), Anita Bryant and the rise
of the anti-gay religious right, the AIDS crisis and the quilt,
women's music and gay churches.
Throughout, it's the personal recollections of men and women that
stick with you. "You have to develop a tough hide to protect that
soft interior," one woman says.
That's also the power behind "Word Is Out" (directed by Peter Adair)
in which two dozen gay individuals face the camera and talk about
their experiences. It's as powerful today as it was when first seen
more than 30 years ago.
Today we have gay superstars, gay characters on network TV, even a
gay cable network. It's easy for young people to take all this for
granted. These films explain how we got here.