“Before Stonewall” ended with the Stonewall Riots. “After Stonewall” began with them. Those documentaries from 1984 and 1999 respectively were reissued in a two-DVD set for Pride Month.
“Stonewall Uprising” sounds like it might have been called “During Stonewall,” but an opening title reveals the scarcity of photos and film footage of the actual events. Instead the new documentary uses reenactments and generic materials from the period, in addition to interviews with those involved.
Based in part on David Carter’s book “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution” (with Carter helping vet the interviewees), “Stonewall Uprising” is mostly a variation on “Before Stonewall.” Except for a brief introduction the June 28, 1969, raid that triggers the riots doesn’t occur until 50 minutes into the film. The last half-hour is about the raid, the riots and the aftermath.
“Before” and “Uprising” both rely on the testimonies of gay and lesbian individuals who lived in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and some earlier. Their anecdotes are informative, sometimes frightening, and certainly make us appreciate the way we live now, even if we haven’t reached perfection yet.
June 25 – July 1 at Midtown Arts Cinema
• June 25: After 7 p.m. show, Out on Film and Atlanta Pride host sign-making to prepare for the June 26 “Be Visible, Make a Statement” rally at the state capitol.
• June 26: After 1 p.m. show, Louise Covington speaks about her experience living in New York City at the time of the Stonewall riots. After the 7 p.m. show, Out on Film hosts a discussion with those impacted by the September 2009 police raid on the Atlanta Eagle, to address how the two gay bar raids compare
Both films are essential to understanding our history. The key difference is in tone. “Stonewall Uprising,” made by David Heilbroner and Kate Davis, is heavier, lacking some of the entertaining archival visuals the “Before” crew unearthed. It draws a lot from the 1967 CBS special “The Homosexuals,” which wasn’t gay-positive but at least got a lot of old myths out in the open where they could be discussed and challenged.
More obscure and more damaging is a similar documentary, “The Homosexual,” aired a year earlier on a local Miami station. A decade before Anita Bryant’s rise to prominence South Florida was already hostile territory. There’s a clip of a detective from the Dade County Morals & Juvenile Squad scaring a school assembly about those dangerous queers out there.
This and some antigay “public service announcements” look about as silly today as those 1950s “duck and cover” drills that taught children how to protect themselves from nuclear explosions.
There are tales of the horrors of psychiatric treatment, including aversion therapy and experimentation, such as “a pharmacological version of waterboarding,” that led California’s Atascadero institution to become known as “Dachau for queers.”
Most of the film is centered on New York, since that’s where Stonewall was. It’s said that the Stonewall Inn, like all gay bars in the area, was run by the Mafia. Though they were routinely raided the raids usually occurred during non-peak hours so as not to interfere too much with business.
Gay New Yorkers in the ‘60s had sex in the balconies of 42nd Street movie theaters and in the notorious trucks parked in the warehouse district, even though it’s said the latter were raided two or three times a night.
In 1964 the NYPD was told to get the “weirdness” off the streets prior to the World’s Fair. In 1969 Mayor John Lindsay, running for re-election, ordered a clean-up of the city that included the fateful Stonewall raid.
As events play out we learn which of the people we’ve been listening to were on the scene that night and what role they played. For instance, Seymour Pine, Deputy Inspector of the NYPD Morals Division, led the raid. Howard Smith and Lucian Prescott IV covered it for the Village Voice. Former New York Mayor Ed Koch only makes general observations, still speaking of gays in the third person.
Kate Davis also directed “Southern Comfort,” the 2001 documentary about Georgia transsexual man Robert Eads, who died of ovarian cancer after struggling to find a doctor who would treat him, and the Atlanta transgender conference from which it draws its title.
As Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Project collects the memories of Holocaust survivors, it’s important to preserve our history so future generations don’t forget it.
“Stonewall Uprising” might be marketed to right-wingers as a horror movie, “The Night the Queers Fought Back,” but for us it’s a treasured snapshot to be viewed with fondness whenever we need a reminder of how far we’ve come.