A tedious march to a milestone
By Dan Kois
Friday, July 16, 2010
For a movie about a groundbreaking gay rebellion, "Stonewall Uprising" plays it much too straight.
That's not to say that this documentary, directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, doesn't tell a story worth telling. The battle between New York City gays and lesbians and the NYPD in the summer of 1969 -- sparked by the June 28 police raid on the Stonewall Inn in the West Village -- marked the birth of the modern gay rights movement.
But oh, if only it weren't so "American Experience"-y! That is to say, "Stonewall Uprising" is another in that august line of thoughtful, well-meaning PBS documentaries, and it follows a tedious narrative path, familiar to anyone who has been enlightened if not quite inspired by "American Experience" in the past. Historical context, archival image, talking head; lather, rinse, repeat.
The historical context, in this case details of just how terrible gay life was in America pre-Stonewall, is unsurprising. America was as square as can be in those days; file footage of suburban dads mowing lawns doesn't really add that much. And even in New York, gay life carried risks; police raided mafia-run gay bars, dressing in drag was illegal, any arrest brought public disgrace. And no one ever fought back. To be gay in the 1960s, even in New York, was to be acquiescent and terrified.
The night of the riots must have been a sight to see. So it's a near-fatal blow to "Stonewall Uprising" that there basically are no sights to see. That's not entirely the filmmakers' fault. Were the police to shut down a bar in the West Village tonight, Flickr and YouTube would overflow with photo and video evidence in minutes. But the initial Stonewall raid and riot went almost largely undocumented, and the movie opens with a cautionary note: "Other images in this film are either re-creations or drawn from events of the time."
So instead of Stonewall-specific film or photos, we get file footage of 1960s-era gay New Yorkers in some bar, somewhere. Or maybe they're actors pretending to be from the 1960s. Who can tell? Not the viewer, since very little of the footage is identified. The constant visual uncertainty casts a cloud over the documentary, especially when the same video snippets are used multiple times to illustrate different nights of upheaval and unrest.
Much more effective are the men and women who were there. Although their testimony may not lift "Stonewall Uprising" above its TV-doc roots, they are eloquent and frequently passionate. Fascinatingly, the directors include an interview with Seymour Pine, the morals officer who led the charge into the Stonewall; now retired, he has wide, sorrowful eyes under his NYPD cap. Hearing his description of being trapped inside the bar as a crowd of a thousand or more howled outside makes you feel for him, even as "Stonewall Uprising" makes you understand perfectly how years of systematic oppression led to a community's liberating rage. ("It must have been terrifying for them," one interviewee says of those cops. "I hope it was.")
For Stonewall, at its core, was the moment when gays and lesbians stopped accepting institutional abuse and started fighting back. "The police ran from us, the lowliest of the low," one man recalls, his eyes shining with the memory of a night 41 years ago. "And it was fantastic."
Contains nothing objectionable.