Prior to seeing “Stonewall Uprising” I had what could be described as a “less-than-wikipedia” amount of knowledge about what happened at the Stonewall Inn on that fateful night, June 28,1969, when gay bar patrons fought back against a police raid. “Stonewall Uprising” is a film that brings out the details from the people who participated in the fight from both sides, as well as those who lived and worked in New York when the riots occurred. Interviewees include former New York City mayor Ed Koch, various writers, Seymour Pine (the morals inspector who led the raid), law professor William Eskridge and many of the rioters themselves.
The filmmakers admit upfront that there is very little footage or stills of the actual riots. Such an admission was not needed. “Stonewall Uprising” more than compensates for any dearth of “you are there” visuals with smart editorial choices. By using accounts from those who were actually at the Stonewall riots, and juxtaposing these with stock footage and re-enactments, the film never feels lacking in visual content.
“Stonewall Uprising” begins very effectively with a “teaser” sequence in which we are told quickly and effectively why Stonewall was significant. “This was the Rosa Parks moment, the time when gay people stood up and said ‘no’,” offers “Village Voice” reporter Lucian Truscott.
The film then very intelligently goes back in time to lay the foundation for the riots’ motivation by showing us that the 1960s were “the dark ages for gays,” as another interviewee puts it. We get glimpses of hilariously dated educational films and lectures giving dire warnings about homosexuality. We even see footage of undercover cops in drag trying to entrap drag queens. Not funny at all are descriptions of procedures considered cures for homosexuality: sterilization, castration and even lobotomies.
One interviewee offers the opinion that while the Stonewall Inn itself was a “toilet,” it was also a refuge from the street. The film explains that the need for a refuge arose from the fact that there were no outlets for gays. For example heterosexuals had “Lovers’s Lane” or drive in movie theatres. There were also no legal rights for gays. The point is made, for example, that while African Americans were protected by laws coming out of the Civil War, there were no such protections for gays. “Gay bars were to gays as churches were to blacks in the south,” one interviewee offers.
“Stonewall Uprising” took a subject about which I knew little and presented it in a way that was accessible and interesting but, at the same time, also seemed a bit lacking. While “Stonewall Uprising” presents a lot of information very efficiently I could not help feeling that the film was perhaps a little too streamlined and that there was more to the story. By film’s end somehow the whole thing did not have the “whollop” I expected. What is here though is informative, historically relevant and very well worth seeing.
Stonewall Uprising, Directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, 2010,
First Run Features, 82 minutes