Revisiting people, places at dawn of gay rights movement
History can happen in the least expected places. Certainly, the eight members of the New York Police Department’s Public Morals Squad who raided the Stonewall Inn very early one Saturday morning in June 1969 had no idea they were participating in a momentous event.
A popular gay bar in the West Village, the Stonewall wasn’t exactly a landmark. “A toilet’’ a former patron calls it in “Stonewall Uprising.’’ Yet that raid set off a series of violent demonstrations that marked the birth of the gay-rights movement. “This was the Rosa Parks moment,’’ another participant says, “the time that gay people stood up and said, ‘No.’ ’’
Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s riveting documentary looks at more than just the Stonewall riots. It provides a context for them, offering a highly evocative sense of gay life in the decade or so before Stonewall. That life was largely invisible to the general public. When it did get noticed, it was universally condemned and persecuted. The filmmakers weave together modern-day interviews with gay activists, old photographs, period footage, and excerpts from hilarious/gruesome educational films with titles like “Boys Be Aware’’ and “Perversion for Profit.’’ “Notice how Albert delicately pats his hair and adjusts his collar,’’ sagely observes the narrator of a 1950s Columbia University educational film. “His movements are not characteristic of a real boy.’’ Real boys don’t adjust? It’s like “Mystery Science Theater’’ without the robots.
Davis did the superb editing job, weaving together these disparate materials to give the documentary a terrific sense of pace and texture. Gary Lionelli’s rich and varied score further draws in the viewer. Another documentary on gay rights opens today, “8: The Mormon Proposition.’’ Its comparative thinness makes one appreciate all the more just how much artistry has gone into making “Stonewall Uprising.’’
The most important decision Davis and Heilbroner made wasn’t artistic, per se. It was selecting the interview subjects they did. They range from a former head of the Mattachine Society, the first gay-rights advocacy group, to a drag queen and two Village Voice reporters who were at the riots. All are impressively articulate and speak with great feeling about their experiences.
It’s indicative of the filmmakers’ attention to detail that they make a point of including childhood or teenage photos of each of their major interview subjects. More than just a framing device, the pictures underscore the passage of time (can this society really once have been that ignorant and intolerant?). More important, they remind us that “Stonewall Uprising’’ is first and foremost about people. Politics and history and sexuality are there, too, but they’re subsidiary to the human stories the documentary tells.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.