On more than one occasion during Stonweall Uprising, the gripping and informative new documentary from Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, someone refers to the riots at the Greenwich Village bar as “the Rosa Parks moment” of the gay liberation movement. As I contemplated this analogy in the wake of the film, I was struck not by some of the obvious similarities between the events but by one key difference. As a full-time, tenure track university professor who has read his share of SAT exams, I have read, literally hundreds of essays in my life about Rosa Parks and the Memphis Montgomery bus boycott.
Before viewing the film, I had never heard of the Stonewall riots.
Maybe that says something about me and what a relatively sheltered life I’ve lived. I don’t know. I would prefer to think that it says something about the way in which history gets institutionalized (or not), taught (or not), and becomes part of our collective, cultural memory. Or not.
That’s one reason why I think Stonewall Uprising, as well as being a very good film, is an important film. Its production is itself a significant event given that it is the first gay-themed film produced for PBS in America. There will be reactionary hand wringing and finger pointing on that account–accusations of using public money and public airwaves to promote a partisan agenda. Given the fact, however, that there are very few archival accounts (approximately seven still photographs according to Heilbroner during the Q&A at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival) and that the generation who lived through this era in American history is aging–the police officer interviewed for the film was 91 and confined to a wheel chair–the film struck me as not merely timely, but necessary.
One challenge facing the co-directors was the careful separation of fact from urban legend. Relying heavily on the work of historian David Carter, they sought first to verify the involvement of various interview subjects and then used their interviews to cross-verify accounts. The inclusion of interviews with Ed Koch (Councilman at the time of the riots and later mayor of New York) as well as a member of the police force ensure that those on opposite sides of the riot are given an opportunity to speak.
Also of immense value is the film’s careful reconstruction of the representation of gays through the use of archival media and news footage to provide a context for the situation leading up to the Stonewall riots. In my own experience as an educator, I have found that young adults who have inherited greater (though by no means equal) rights through the protests of various minority or marginalized groups in the past will often communicate surprise or even disbelief at the level of anger and resentment evidenced in those who lived during more oppressive times.
I think this phenomenon manifested itself in audience reactions to the first third of the film. Some audience members questioned the laughter at the public service films and clips from CBS’s The Homosexuals news special as being rooted in deeply embedded homophobia. I tended to agree with co-director Kate Davis that some of the laughter at these clips is actually grounded in the cultural progress made since the 1960s that makes them appear, well, laughable. It is hard for us as audience members to wrap our heads around the notion that society was once that corporately paranoid of homosexuals, and so it is hard to receive these historical accounts as sincere, as something other than self-parody.
No worries, though, because once the witnesses talk, the laughing stopped. Accounts of behavioral conditioning at Atascadero, California give viewers a sense of the very real dangers that confronted gays and lesbians in the 1960s–and that in many places in the world persist to this day. One man speaks movingly of a friend subjected to a partial lobotomy by his family…for being gay. Several speak of beatings and violence against gays as being not just ignored but condoned. Committing this part of our history to tape, having a still living reminder that yes, it really was that bad, is crucial, not just for understanding the context of the riots but also for the gay rights movement that has descended from them.
In an interview after the screening Davis and Heilbroner discussed with me their attempts to make a film that would not only be embraced by gay audiences but relevant to mainstream audiences. Part of that process included, by necessity, not overly lionizing any one participant and, especially appreciated by this viewer, a refusal to demonize those on opposing sides of the issue. That is not to say they don’t include clips from participants who wish to demonize the police, but the film itself is deftly and confidently understated, trusting the audience to be able to deal with moral and political complexities. One place where that is evident is in the film’s last act as questions are raised about whether or not resistance must always be or can always be non-violent.
If there was one moving, indelible image that I took away from the film, it wasn’t anything said by the participants proudly remembering when they finally stood up to the police but from the police officer who in the twilight of life looks back with regret on making them do it: “You knew you could ruin [the people you arrested] for life […] you felt bad…”
Heilbroner told me that when they filmed that part of the interview, Davis immediately knew it should be the culmination of the film. Certainly, it gives straight viewers an entry point into the film, but it also does something even more important. As time passes, and, God willing, progress is made, it nudges the conversation in another direction, raising the question of what can and can’t happen here and how things that seem impossible for us to fathom in the present environment could be take for granted or accepted in another.
Times were different then, the common argument goes, and indeed they were.
But deep down, the film tells us, in the core of our being…we knew.
We always knew.