Quick thoughts on Stonewall Uprising

Last night, I saw Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s new film Stonewall Uprising, based on David Carter’s 2004 book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. Overall, and especially given the time constraints of the medium and the limitations of narrator-free documentary, and the inevitable fuzziness on some points of detail that come along with them, I thought there was a lot to recommend it. I certainly hope it gains a wide audience.

The film’s strongest aspect, by far, is its vivid, compelling account of the medical and legal oppression that most gay people faced in the midcentury United States, between World War II and the late 1960s. It’s tricky to lay this all out without leaving the impression that gay cultural and communal life was completely nonexistent, but the film strikes this balance pretty well: the presence of a “pre-Stonewall” gay culture is evident, but so too are the often-tragic consequences for those unlucky enough to be arrested or subjected to medical “treatment” for their homosexuality. The filmmakers also do a good job offering at least cursory glances at a number of important contexts for the events at the Stonewall Inn in late June 1969: the homophile movement (including in New York City), mayoral politics, organized crime, the radical milieu of the late 1960s. Although a few of the subjects wax historical in ways that aren’t quite accurate, most of the examples of this I noticed were countered elsewhere in the film, and the contradictions were often suggestive. (For instance, one of the Stonewall patrons says of the first Christopher Street Liberation Day march something to the effect of, “No one could have imagined before now carrying signs saying, ‘I am gay.'” But, as we’ve already seen in the film, homophile activists had done just that in Philadelphia and Washington five years earlier!)

My biggest beef with the film was its lack of transparency regarding the sources of the still and moving images used during the discussion of the Stonewall uprising itself. There’s a title in the opening credits noting that little visual record of the riots exists and that filmmakers used both footage from other events and filmed reenactments. But I wondered what those other events were, and what footage was from the period and what was reenacted—partly from my own curiosity, and partly because I imagine students would inevitably ask if I ever used Stonewall Uprising in teaching.

Authentic footage did provide provided one of the film’s most fascinating and resonant moments, though: in an excerpt from a mid-1960s television interview, Richard Inman of the Florida Mattachine rejects (on behalf of all homophile activists) any interest in same-sex marriage or adoption by gay people, and then, when asked if he’s gay, declares that it’s not his “cup of tea.”

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