Entertainment » Television

Stonewall Uprising :: Filmmakers make ’gay history American history’

by M. M. Adjarian
Thursday Apr 21, 2011

The Stonewall Riots are ’the Rosa Parks moment’ for gay rights. Stonewall Uprising, a recent doc film (to be aired on PBS & released on DVD) about the event, re-examines the event. EDGE spoke to directors Kate Davis & David Heilbroner about their film.

On Monday, April 25, PBS will air Stonewall Uprising. Jointly directed by acclaimed documentarians Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, the film offers a fascinating-though perhaps somewhat simplified-look at what Time Magazine has said is "the ’Rosa Parks moment’ of the gay rights movement."

The DVD of Stonewall Uprising will also be available on April 26th on shoppbs.org.

This latest addition to the distinguished Davis/Heilbroner oeuvre is divided into a section that sets Stonewall in its historical context, another that deals with the event itself, and one that briefly examines the aftermath. To tell the story, the filmmakers use excerpts from anti-gay socialization films, made-for-TV news segments, reenactments, collected still images, and interviews from journalists, politicians and event participants on both sides of the law.

The directors excel at showing the fiercely homophobic environment that characterized 1960s America. Their depiction of a time when the likes of Mike Wallace narrated a "CBS Reports" segment that stereotyped homosexuals as "promiscuous" and "not interested in or capable of forming lasting relationships like heterosexual marriage"; or when homosexuality itself was viewed as a type of "psychopathy" that was often "treated" by chemical castration or electroshock therapy is as terrifying as it is profoundly disturbing.

Davis and Heilbroner’s evocation of late 1960s New York is also compelling. Young queers flocked to the city-which had become a mecca for the new counterculture-from all over the country to search for others like themselves. They congregated where they could, even it meant being openly exploited at Mafia-run bars like the Stonewall Inn. At places like these, they could at least find temporary respite from a world where they were routinely stalked, harassed and beaten by civilians and police officers alike.

The directors’ handling of the actual event is deft. Still images and reenactments of the chaos that was Stonewall mingle with vivid recollections actual participants offer of the event. One, a former NYPD officer from the "public morals" division, gives testimony that shows just how deeply the event-and the struggle for civil rights that followed-impacted heterosexual consciousness. "You know they broke the law," he says, "but what kind of law was that?"

As a Stonewall primer, the film is a success. But as a documentary that probes the complexities of the event, it is admittedly wanting. For example, the film focuses on a homogeneous-which is to say, white-group of interviewees, effectively ignoring how such variables as race and class impacted the event. It also glosses over the contributions such LGBT organizations as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis made to the development of gay identity and political activism. Still, for gay and straight viewers interested in an introduction to Stonewall and its place in American history, the film works well.

Davis and Heilbroner themselves are no strangers to social justice issues, particularly as they pertain to the LGBT community. The two produced Anti-Gay Hate Crimes (1998) and Transgender Revolution (1999) for A&E. And Davis both produced and directed Southern Comfort (2001), an Emmy-nominated, multi award-winning film about a female-to-male transsexual who is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Recently, I interviewed this dedicated and socially aware pair of documentarians about their latest effort.

Story continues on following page:

Watch this interview with the filmmakers behind Stonewall Uprising shot at the Stonewall Inn:

Watch the trailer to Stonewall Uprising:


  • Doric Wilson, 2011-04-22 11:11:35

    Complaining that the Stonewall Uprising documentary ignores racial minorities shows not much understanding of New York City in the 1960. The police made sure that very few people of color were on the street of midtown or downtown after dark. And they could be very persuasive. I was there all the nights of Stonewall and I don’t remember seeing more than a handful of minorities, and most of these were the street kids who are well represented in the film. Lance Taylor, a black painter friend who lived in the Village, was afraid to join me because of an encounter he had with the police a week before while walking his dog. He still had his bandages. Two of the most visible non-whites active in those days were Miss Marsha Johnson (mentioned in my play Street Theater) and Silvia Rivera. They were both dead before the documentary was filmed or I am sure they would have been interviewed. It is also a joke to suggest the participating whites were middle or upper class. It was street people and Village artist types. The "gay" middle or upper class treated us "radicals" as if we were lepers. They did not get involved until Anita started pelting them with oranges. And as far as giving early "gay" organizations credit, the Stonewall Uprising and its aftermath was unexpected and spontaneous, much like what is happening in the middle East at the moment. The organizations of the era were running as fast at they could simply to catch up! But I applaud M. M. Adjarian’s political correctness. It always make such a nice imaginative balance in the face of boring old reality. Doric Wilson, playwright, activist (doricw@nyc.rr.com)

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