Stonewall Uprising

A scene during the 1969 Stonewall riots, as seen in Kate Davis' and David Heilbroner's documentary STONEWALL UPRISING. A First Run Features Release. Photo by Bettye Lane.

“Stonewall Uprising” is the new documentary which will open at Film Forum on June 16 and run through June 29. The 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village have historically been credited for starting the Gay Rights movement. The documentary, produced and directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, is a well-made, educational and personal look at the atmosphere in which Stonewall happened, the riots themselves and their aftermath.

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

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About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on June 12, 2010, in Documentary, Film Forum, New. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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