"BEFORE STONEWALL" is a documentary of gay rebellion. But more than that it is a documentary of social protest in America. It makes you homesick for the great days of change and the huge and rowdy movements that precipitated liberation for blacks, women and finally gays.
In June 1969, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York's Greenwich Village surprised police when they resisted a routine raid. The three nights of rioting proved to be the birth of the Gay Liberation Movement. "Before Stonewall" looks at the origins of this violent nativity.
This excellent documentary is not only an eye-opening history of the homosexual in America, but also a tribute to those gays of bygone days who fought against straight tyranny. It's a compassionate and cohesive work by Greta Shiller, who produces and co-directs with Robert Rosenberg. The extraordinary archival footage was researched under the direction of Andrea Weiss, and the film is narrated by novelist Rita Mae Brown.
The filmmakers also interviewed a cross-section of homosexual men and women, beginning appropriately enough with Harry Otis, a dancer born in Colorado in the gay '90s with a different angle on the Wild West. But the directors mislead us by setting an early Stan Laurel comedy to the tune of "The Lavender Cowboy," which was not part of the film. These liberties have to make you wonder about the overall credibility of the document.
Still, the clips from the Harlem renaissance of the '20s, a "Stars and Stripes" drag show from the '40s, the McCarthy witch hunts of the '50s, and the demonstrations of the '60s and '70s offer a coherent chronicle of the socio-political evolution of the American homosexual.
One of the movie's must persuasive arguments credits World War II, which effectively isolated the sexes, with cracking open the closet door. Johnnie Phelps, a former WAC, tells a story about Eisenhower ordering her to ferret out the lesbians in her battalion. Sure, she says, "if the general is prepared to replace most all of them . . . starting with me." The film makes the startling claim that only 3 percent of the WACs were straight.
"Before Stonewall" also features interviews with a variety of historians, psychologists, activists, authors, government officials, "bull dykes" and "southern belles." Engaging and informative as all these people are, it is poet Allen Ginsberg who puts the politics of discrimination in perspective: "In the '40s, the bomb dropped . . . the entire planet was threatened biologically . . . there was a recovery from a total breakdown of all morality in the concentration camps. For those of us who were homosexual, it was the realization of why are we being intimidated by a bunch of jerks who don't know anything about life? Who were they to tell us what to feel and how. . . to behave?" -- Rita Kempley. BEFORE STONEWALL (Unrated) -- At the Inner Circle.