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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, July 31, 2010

 
Saturday Night At The Movies

Incident on Christopher Street: Stonewall Uprising

By Dennis Hartley
















Si se puede: Stonewall rioters, 1969



It isn’t nice to block the doorway
It isn’t nice to go to jail
There are nicer ways to do it
But the nice ways always fail

-Malvina Reynolds

In the wee hours of June 28, 1969 the NYPD raided a Mafia-owned Greenwich Village dive called the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar on Christopher Street. As one of those policemen recalls in the new documentary, Stonewall Uprising, the officers were given “…no instructions except-put them out of business.” Hard as it might be for younger readers to fathom, despite the relative headway that had occurred in the civil rights movement for other American minorities by that time, the systemic persecution of sexual minorities was still par for the course as the 60s drew to a close. There were more laws against homosexuality than you could count. The LGBT community was well-accustomed to this type of roust; the police had no reason to believe that this wouldn’t be another ho-hum roundup of law-breaking deviants. This night, however, was to be different. As the policeman continues, “This time they said: ‘We’re not going, and that’s that.’ It was a war.” More than a war; it in fact proved to be the catalyst for a movement.

Exactly how this spontaneous act of civil disobedience transmogrified into a game-changer in the struggle for gay rights makes for a fascinating history lesson and an absorbing film. Filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner take an Errol Morris approach to their subject. Participants give an intimate recount of the event and how it changed their lives, while the several nights of rioting (from initial spark to escalation and immediate aftermath) are effectively recreated using a mixture of extant film footage and photographs (of which, unfortunately, very little exists) with dramatic reenactments.

Davis and Heilbroner also take a look back at how life was for the “homophile” community (as they were referred to in the media at the time). It was, shall we say, less than idyllic. In the pre-Stonewall days, gays and lesbians were, as one interviewee says, the “twilight” people; forced into the shadows by societal disdain and authoritarian persecution. As you watch the film, it becomes hard to believe that these folks were living in America (you, know, that whole land of the “free” thingie). The excerpts from a “CBS Reports” news special from 1967 (“The Homosexuals”) are particularly telling of the era. “2 out of 3 Americans look upon homosexuals with disgust, discomfort, or fear,” a grim-faced Mike Wallace intones. From the same program, an “expert” posits that “Homosexuality is, in fact a mental illness, which has reached epidemiological proportions.” (Hide the kids!) Prior to seeing this film, I had never heard of the goings-on in California’s Atascadero State Hospital in the 50s and 60s, where gay inmates were given “cures” straight out of A Clockwork Orange (or the Guantanamo handbook, for that matter). Lobotomies, sterilizations, and even castrations were involved (one interviewee refers to the facility as “The Dachau for Queers”). Gee, what do you suppose those Stonewall patrons were all so pissy about? Why didn’t they just go live in Russia?

Perhaps not so surprising are the recollections that the media wrote off the incident as an aberration; little more than a spirited melee between “Greenwich Village youths” and the cops (“Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad”, the N.Y. Sunday News headline chuckled the following day). The film culminates in the story of the first commemorative marches the following year, which were more furtive and politically charged affairs than the relatively festive and celebratory street parties that the pride parades have become (not that there’s anything wrong with that, to paraphrase Seinfeld).

I think this film is an important reminder that when it comes to civil rights, America is not out of the woods yet. Not just for the LGBT community (Prop 8 being an all-too-recent memory) but with Arizona’s SB 1070 darkening Ms Liberty’s doorstep as well. And do I need to remind you about teabagger-fueled vitriol? Stonewall might seem like ancient history, but its lessons are on today’s fresh sheet. The struggle goes on…and the moving closing comments by some of the documentary’s interviewees would seem to bear this out “It was the only time I was in a gladiatorial sport…where I stood up in,” says one participant, tears welling in his eyes, “…I was a man.” And there is no sugarcoating the means to the ends, either. A female interviewee confides, “As much as I don’t like to say it, there’s a place for violence. Because if you don’t have extremes, you don’t get any moderation.” Gladitorial sport? A place for violence? Standing up for what’s right? That is "so gay." And as another interviewee points out, that’s so…American.

Note: The film is currently in limited release around the country, but I noticed that it is a PBS American Experience production, so you’ll want to keep an eye on your TV listings!

Previous posts with related themes:

Milk
Outrage
William Kuntsler: Disturbing the Universe

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