Directed by Kate Davis & David Heilbroner
Stonewall Uprising is not the first documentary to directly address what has been referred to as the “Rosa Parks” moment in Gay Liberation. Even if one hasn’t seen either Before Stonewall, After Stonewall, or even Gay Sex in the 1970s, it’s highly unlikely that those who view this latest exploration of the three-day riots that began June 28, 1969-when a typical raid on the dingy, Mafia-run gay bar, Stonewall Inn, was met with an overwhelmingly angry and violent resistance from what seemed to be the entire gay and lesbian community of New York City’s Greenwich Village-would be unfamiliar with this event and unaware of its milestone status. In addition to the unenviable task of making a Stonewall documentary that inspires more than a feeling of been there, done that, directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner have been left with no footage of the actual riots and are forced to rely on still photos, talking-head commentary, and grainy, fleeting re-enactments for dramatic momentum, thus running the risk of putting out a final product that seems more suitable for the lecture hall than the cinema.
However, while it goes without saying that the question of how much (or how little) new information the film provides is relative to the individual viewer, Stonewall Uprising turns out to be an emotionally satisfying experience. This is largely due to Davis and Heilbroner’s ability to subtly and efficiently weave a narrative that contextualizes and puts the riots into perspective. Most of the film is actually a chilling portrait of the persecution of homosexuals in 1960s America. Illegal in every state except Illinois, homosexuality was perceived as a mental illness for which those found guilty would be subject to electroshock aversion therapy, castration, sterilization, or even what is referred to in the film as “chemical waterboarding”. This information is mainly presented to the viewer through actual footage of PSA’s that would be comical in their Pleasantville evocation of cookie-cutter, close-minded suburbia, (a young boy brushing his hair and adjusting his collar while his friends roughhouse is identified as cause for alarm) if it weren’t for its horrifying presentation of gays as criminal sociopaths. Although gays and lesbians were able to find “refuge” in Greenwich Village, it was nonetheless one of violent persecution by police forces and of perceived sideshow freak status by the rest of New York. After listening to such horror stories for 50 minutes, the viewer needs little explanation as to why the patrons of Stonewall reacted as violently and recklessly as they did.
Ironically, it is the retelling of the riots themselves that is Stonewall Uprising’s weakest moment. Although there are admirable attempts to overcome the lack of actual footage, including bird’s-eye view diagrams and lively, impassioned testimony from the impressive cast of commentators (which includes not just rioters, but police and journalists as well), this supposed climax is never quite as transporting as the powerful set-up preceding it. Luckily, the film redeems itself in its moving conclusion where it becomes clear to the viewer why such a film needs to be made and seen in the first place. In an era where Gay Pride events – particularly in Canada, where fully equal rights for gays and lesbians are just a heartbeat away – can be met with complacency and even hostility from the gay community itself, Stonewall Uprising serves as a necessary reminder of the oppression and heroism at the root of Gay Liberation. Indeed, every one of the commentators speaks with the solemnity and rumination of a war veteran, including now-retired NYPD officer and leader of the raid, Seymour Pine, who, after expressing an unmistakable devotion to seeing the raid through, nevertheless adds at the end, “Yes, they broke the law. But what kind of law was it?”
What is most subtle about the film, however, is the way Davis and Heilbroner address the way many contemporary gays are unfortunately all too keen to disassociate themselves from those who are perceived as “too gay.” For instance, the film informs us that before drag queens were embraced by the mainstream as a form of entertainment, it was illegal for men to wear less than three items of male attire. However, this sort of gender-bending performativity was used as a defence mechanism and expression of protest manifested by the angry rioters chanting in a Rockettes-style kickline to intimidate and entrap the cops. In addition to bringing to light the oft-forgotten political implications of drag and camp, there is also a nod to the dangers of reassuring and appeasing mainstream society in order to escape persecution. In what is arguably the film’s most soul-crushing clip, the president of the Mattachine Society at the time insists to Mike Wallace that gays and lesbians pose no threat to heterosexual society…since they have absolutely no desire to get married and have children, and that anyone who would claim otherwise is a raving lunatic.
Unfortunately, Stonewall Uprising’s ridiculously brief Montreal release is probably a sign that it will be one of those films that those who make the effort to seek it out are not necessarily the ones who need to see it. Nevertheless, Davis and Heilbroner, like the best documentary filmmakers, have used their material to put forth a message in a manner that never feels spoon-fed or manipulative. When one commentator gets misty-eyed as he reminisces about the unexpected thousands of people who marched in the streets one year after Stonewall (thus becoming the first Gay Pride Parade), we never doubt the authenticity of those tears. Indeed, while any film serving as a reminder that the issue of gay rights should not be taken for granted as commendable on that basis alone, what is most noteworthy about Stonewall Uprising is its insistence on the necessity of communal solidarity for social progress to occur. Perhaps what is truly poignant about the film is that such a message still feels necessary more than 40 years after the events it retells.