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Stonewall Uprising
A film review from the BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, by Joseph Ewens

The swinging 60s and The Summer of Love stand as a pivotal explosion of colour and freedom in the history of Western society. A stark contrast to the wars, disasters, and genocides that form the bulk of our historical waypoints. Still, for all its much lauded expressions of free love and anti-establishment morality, the more time stretches away from 1969, the more the rose-tinted spectacles begin to slip. Stonewall Uprising is another bullet aimed squarely at the nostalgic reverence with which people treat the late 60s. Based on the book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, the film is a straightforward documentary that recounts the systematic repression of homosexuals and the night that resentment bubbled over into riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York.

"The 60s were the dark ages," reports one of the many talking head correspondents, whose interviews make up the bulk of the picture. That might sound like hyperbole, but the first half of Stonewall Uprising argues the point very effectively. Its main purpose is to set the scene for the titular rebellion, but the broad historical account of closeted homosexuality in 60s U.S.A is equally as interesting. A collection of interviewees, mostly men and women who were present at the uprising, recount their experiences of living as a gay person under a bigoted government system. Many disenfranchised or outcast gays collected in New York, so it's no surprise that much of the old newsreel footage and copious anecdotes focus on the city. But even in the Big Apple, homosexuals were an underclass, confined to the area around Greenwich Village, where even the smallest display of "homosexual activity" was the quickest route to a night the cells.

At times, Stonewall Uprising is in danger of laying on the pathos with a trowel, but the grainy images of men on street corners and billy-club wielding cops are offset by the recollections of the talking head contributors. They recall the empty trucks they used for illicit midnight trysts and mafia-run gay-bars with the kind of excited nostalgia only available to those who have escaped repression. As sad and despicable as the treatment of homosexuals was, it is an era from which humanity has escaped. Equality may be an ambition we are yet to attain, but the days of being routinely beaten to death or arrested for your sexuality are thankfully behind us. This wonderful progress robs Stonewall Uprising of any kind of message beyond remembrance. It's a worthwhile lesson, but the film is more interesting from a historical perspective. Stonewall Uprising is peppered with 60s public service messages espousing ridiculous beliefs about the evils of "deviant sexuality." Despite their insidious and damaging nature, seen with our 21st Century eyes they are nothing short of hilarious. Their inclusion also implies that directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner are well aware that their picture works best as a document of a past that shaped the future, rather than trying to ram home any message of modern tolerance.

With a swathe of effective background behind us, we finally arrive at the Stonewall Inn. By all accounts, this was a gay hangout of no particular importance. It was one of the many low-rent Mafia-run dives in which the homosexuals and bisexuals of New York could find sanctuary and companionship. Just like many similar haunts across the city it was regularly raided by police. One night in the summer of 1969, when a cop squad arrived to turf out the revelers, feelings of anger, frustration, and solidarity reached a tipping point. For the first time ever, the clientele of the Stonewall Inn resisted en masse. This small confrontation quickly ballooned into a huge stand-off as more and more people arrived to oppose the police. It's easy to sympathise with the sense of excitement and occasion in the recollections of onlookers and rioters, and it is here that the film really hits its peak. The various talking heads recall their moment of glory with a palpable sense of pride. Visually we are treated to a very small selection of photos and believable recreations. These are a serviceable point of focus, but the fifth time you see the same black and white image of gurning rioters you'll wish they had been more photographers to hand.

Documentaries that deal with a divisive issue should always be brought under close scrutiny. Even more so when they recount a historical event, as the testimony of individuals often lacks fidelity. So it was a delight to see that, in Stonewall Uprising, the filmmakers had drafted in Seymour Pine, a law enforcement officer who led the raid on the Stonewall that night. His memories of the event provide a vital counterpoint to the many voices from the rioters camp. Davis and Heilbroner deserve plenty of credit for letting Pine speak his piece without any kind of biased intervention. While a few of the rioters revel in their aggression towards the police, Pine is a much needed reminder of the other side of the coin. He and his small unit were trapped inside the Inn with a large group of gay men and women, while an ever-escalating riot raged outside the door. The inclusion of Village Voice reporter Howard Smith – who also found himself barricaded inside the bar – adds an extra dash of impartiality.

Stonewall Uprising is, in many ways, a very conventional documentary. It tells its story through a collection of interviews, intercut with contemporary footage and the narrative progresses in a totally linear fashion. Following the establishment of the social situation with the riot itself and a short epilogue on the aftermath. By relying so heavily on the tropes of an established genre, the filmmakers can focus entirely on telling the story of Stonewall in an effective and personal way.

The more we know about our history, the more we know about today. As the author of the Stonewall book succinctly states, "Gay history is everyone's history." The uprising was a key event in the progression of civil liberty and the start of the gay rights movement. Stonewall Uprising is not an important film, but it does competently tell the story of an important moment.

Stonewall Uprising

USA 2010
80 mins
Kate Davis
David Heilbroner
Kate Davis
David Heilbroner
David Heilbroner
Buddy Squires
Kate Davis
Gary Lionelli
review posted
29 April 2010

Watch the Stonewall Uprising trailer