Using antique photographs, old film footage and interviews with about 30 subjects, "Before Stonewall," Greta Schiller's historical documentary, tells the story of gay life in this country roughly from the turn of the century until the riots, in June 1969, that stemmed from a routine police bust at the Stonewall Cafe in Greenwich Village.
The movie links gay history with the larger cultural movements of the times, showing how homosexuals were liberated by the upheaval brought on by World War II, repressed during the McCarthyite '50s and freed again during the '60s, their cause energized by the broader revolution in civil rights and sexual mores.
The overall thrust of "Before Stonewall" is to show how far we've come from the days, not too long ago, when gay life was hidden and gay men and women were known, euphemistically, as "temperamental" or "that way." But while it's useful to be reminded of that, the fact that American society made certain strides over the last 50 years isn't exactly a revelation. In the end, most of "Before Stonewall" isn't a whole lot more interesting than one of those Virginia Slims ads that shows a poor oppressed woman sneaking a cigarette in the basement -- it's just longer.
The movie does have its moments. A woman named Joanie Phelps relates a hilarious and telling anecdote regarding her service as a WAC during World War II. When Gen. Eisenhower ordered her to "ferret out" any lesbians in the WACs, she told him she'd be happy to do so, but her name would be first on the list; his secretary then turned to him and said, no, her name would be first on the list. To which the general, presumably with some consternation, could only say, "Forget the order." And there is a nice sequence when former patrons of a gay nightclub, the Black Cat Cafe, enjoy a reunion and break into a chorus of "God Save the Queens."
"Before Stonewall" is less exciting than worthwhile, and what makes it worthwhile is the way it puts a human face on issues that tend to become abstract arguments over what God intended for man, the right to one's body and so forth. Underneath it all, the simple message of "Before Stonewall" is that homosexuals are just looking in life for a little corner of happiness, a quest that is neither perverse nor dangerous, but merely human.
When "Before Stonewall" ends with the story of the Stonewall riots and the relative tolerance that ensued, it's a happy ending, and it makes you hope for a sequel, "Beyond Stonewall," with a happier ending still.
Before Stonewall,opening today at the Inner Circle, is unrated and contains profanity and sexual themes.