Monday, June 14, 2010

Davis/Heilbroner's STONEWALL UPRISING tracks a seminal event in gay history

The Stonewall story stands tall in gay history (American gay history, at least). At times it almost seems like our own Nativity tale, or maybe a combination of our Crucifixion/
Resurrection. And that's just for Christian mythology addicts. What Muslim gays might make of it, I have no idea. And Jewish gays? Well, it certainly ain't Masada. In STONEWALL UPRISING, the somewhat circuitous new documentary by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, this event gets the best presentation of how and why Stonewall happened that TrustMovies has yet seen.

Based on David Carter's book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, the film merges talking-head interviews with archival footage, news clips with what I believe may be re-enactments, and even adds a helpful graphic depiction of how a horde of community protesters were able to outmaneuver the police on that fateful night.  If you've ever wanted to know more about Stonewall, here's your guide.  (The filmmakers tell us in a preface note that very few photographs were taken during this fateful night, hence their use of just about everything else to bring their story together visually.)

Other documentaries over the years have covered this event, but not, I think, in the depth or detail we see here.  And if other portions of the documentary are a bit flabby, this singular achievement makes up for that.  Some of the interviews here are quite good, but others seem repetitive, particularly after other documentaries -- Before Stonewall, for instance -- that we've previously seen.   There is also a circularity to the construction (making it occasionally seem as if we've been there/done that) plus a rather odd timeline (in its history of gays in America, the film does not introduce The Mattachine Society until halfway through.)

But if the overall impression sometimes runs to the "gray and same," the individual details are often quite something. The masquerading law that made it a crime to "dress up" (see photo at right), a pharmaco-
logical example of "waterboarding" used on gays during their enforced hospital stays of the 1950s, and the fact that, back in those days, there was no "coming out" because, as one interviewee tells us, literally everyone was "in" that very large closet.  Back then, at best homosex-
uality was a sickness, at worst a crime.  And just why were those police radios cut off on the night of the raid? (The film's real coup is getting the NY cop who led the actual raid to talk about it now).

Davis (shown above, right) and Heilbroner (above left), who last year gave us Waiting for Armageddon, do a good job of showing us how the patrons of the Stonewall Inn -- a gay bar owned by the Mafia who evidently paid off the police to allow it to remain open (the Mafia appears to be the only organization back then with the balls, savvy and Capitalistic entrepreneurship to know how to fully take advantage of a downtrodden minority) -- instead of peacefully submitting to arrest and detainment, rose up on the night of June 28, 1969, when the police instituted yet another raid on the bar.  Suddenly, an anger that would pre-date Network's "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore" took hold, and once word of the standoff against the police reached the surrounding neighbor-
hood, hundreds of people appeared to join in the fray, making history -- as well as a lot of noise and partying -- in the process.

What the documentary duo make clear in their film is how the community, as much as the bar patrons, helped this sudden, small event turn into the beginning of a monumental change in attitude -- of gays themselves, and of American toward them.  (Not that there isn't still a long way to go.) It also insists on the use of the term "uprising," rather than "riot," to describe what happened that night.  The filmmakers' point -- a good one, I believe -- is that Stonewall was more about the striving for social justice and equality than for anything else.

After playing at a couple of recent festivals, Stonewall Uprising, from First Run Features, makes its theatrical debut Wednesday, June 16, at Film Forum in New York City, after which it will wend its way nationwide.  To see the currently scheduled dates, cities and theaters, simply click here.  The filmmakers themselves, along with author David Carter, NYC's own Christine Quinn, and some of the subjects from the film will all appear in person at Film Forum at various times during the run.  To learn who and when, click here and scroll down.

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