Stonewall Uprising: Movie Review

By Jeff Walsh

Stonewall Uprising is a new documentary that details the birth of the modern gay rights movement in New York City on June 28, 1969, when a group of patrons at the Stonewall Inn fought back during a regular police raid, leading to three days of riots and our first "pride parade."

Unlike today, where every song at a Lady Gaga concert is covered from every angle by 400 different cell phone and video cameras and uploaded to YouTube, there isn't much footage of the Stonewall Riots, but when this documentary finally gets to that famous night, hearing the oral narrative from the people who were there, combined with photos and talking heads, is still gripping.

Hearing about that night, you understood why this film (which opens in the Bay Area this weekend) was made. But, it did seem to take its time getting to that fateful night. Don't get me wrong, I think context is great, but seeing the old news footage of how homosexuality was treated back in the day seems to run a bit long. Every time we see a talking head, we know they are setting the stage for the riots, and then we drift into more backstory, teased again.

I think recently seeing an oral history so expertly told with We Were Here, made seeing one that just doesn't measure up as effectively more obvious. I saw the same talking heads throughout this film, but it seems they were used more to advance the history of a people. They were there to serve the story of Stonewall, when in fact, they are the story of Stonewall. I'd rather hear them contextualize the history, weave in their own personal narratives, and use that to advance the story.

I was most intrigued by one inclusion and one omission. The oddest inclusion in the film is former Mayor of New York City Ed Koch. He even writes about this movie and his role in it on Huffington Post. While Koch did live in the Vilage at the time, and added a non-discrimination to the city's policy when he was elected mayor in 1977, he has been called a closeted gay man on many occassions by Larry Kramer, as well as in the film Outrage. His rumored homosexuality was considered a factor in his lack of action during the early days of the AIDS epidemic by Randy Shilts, as well.

So, as much as he was there at the time, he seems a strange choice to provide context for when gay people finally came out of the closet as a movement, if he is indeed an 85-year-old closet case in 2010. If you want people to not discuss your sexuality, perhaps avoid appearing in documentaries about gay history?

As for the omission, it just seems there are so many stories we've heard about Stonewall over the years. You often hear it linked to the death of Judy Garland, who died six days earlier, and how her death is what made the drag queens in mourning say "Enough." We also hear every group sort of put their imprint on the night, how it was largely people of color, transgenders, drag queens, and butch lesbians on the front lines. I do have to say the talking heads are a very white group, which is fine if that was the actual demographic, and after the AIDS epidemic, the people still available to tell this oral history. But for a documentary that seemed to be padding for time before the riots kicked in, this was a great opportunity to bring up these issues and address them once and for all. Some of these issues weren't necessarily absent from the film, but I didn't get any additional clarity in this regard than I had beforehand.

In an Advocate interview, co-director Kate Davis was asked the Judy Garland question, and replied "We asked every single participant about Judy Garland, and we would’ve included it if anybody had said it was fire on the match, but no one did." I'm not a documentary filmmaker, but if you know to ask every single participant in your film about a rumor that is pervasive 40 years later, and they all deny there being any connection, that's actually worth including. No?

Ironically, the best inclusion is modern-day interview footage of the police officer who led the raid. It is a perspective I'd never heard before, and hearing how the police were afraid and that all these years later, he seems to realize he was on the wrong side of history is great stuff. Of course, everyone who ever served as a vice cop should question how useless their life's path has been, so it's good to see that actually does happen to them. But I am grateful for his inclusion. It is one of the things that does make this documentary worth seeing, if you have the chance.

While I had some problems with this documentary, I think it is important for people to know our history. A lot of the redundant information in this film may be new information for many people, and it's good to provide that context (although I still think there is a 'We get it!' moment well before it wraps up), so overall this is an important topic, and if you never saw anything about the history of Stonewall, you owe it to yourself to see what came before us, and to see the people on whose shoulders we stand, who paved the way for us to have a website where openly gay youth can complain they can't find boyfriends in junior high school. Without them, none of this might exist.

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You can go to the movie website to find out if it's playing near you anytime soon: http://firstrunfeatures.com/stonewalluprising_playdates.html