In astounding detail, “Stonewall Uprising” recalls the now-famous three-day riots in June 1969 after a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a popular Greenwich Village gay bar, as homosexuals finally, openly fought back. Cohesive, well-structured docu from veteran filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner boasts a panoply of found footage, graphically positioning the uprising as a flashpoint following decades of repression. This lively retelling of gay pride’s birth, arriving on the 40th anniversary of the first gay pride march (it bows Wednesday at Gotham’s Film Forum and screens June 24 at San Francisco’s Frameline fest), could resonate with crossover auds.
A sense of elation can still be felt in the comments of surviving Stonewall rioters. But helmers Davis and Heilbroner savvily rely on eyewitnesses from both sides of the barricades: Two Village Voice reporters (the paper was headquartered a few doors down), trapped in the bar with the small contingent of police who carried out the raid, were clearly terrified of the angry protesters, the Voice’s later pro-gay stance nowhere in evidence at the time.
NYPD deputy inspector Seymour Pine, who was responsible for leading the raid, is seen here calmly laying out the cops’ point of view. He seemingly had no emotional stake in the proceedings and luckily managed to keep a tight rein on his frightened, generally more homophobic underlings (from the police department’s public morals unit). No lives were lost at Stonewall, but the filmmakers hint that danger was narrowly averted.
The extent to which this benchmark historical event changed perceptions of homosexuality is startlingly brought home by one elder interview subject, who shares pre-Stonewall memories of tourists riding past Times Square to see the “faggots” in their natural habitat. New York, it seems, promised relative tolerance but little acceptance.
Unlike other modern meditations on Stonewall, Davis and Heilbroner’s film excels at contextualizing the moment with a mini-library of clips from rare newsreels, PSAs and educational films from the ’50s and ’60s, registering as variously horrifying, merely dated or patently absurd. Remedies for homosexuality abounded. If medical experimentation, sterilization, castration and lobotomies were more the exceptions than the rule, aversion therapy — a “Clockwork Orange”-style form of electroshock — ranked among the milder prescriptions.
But the mainstream media similarly promoted the demonization of sexual difference and the canonization of the norm. Mike Wallace’s 1966 CBS report on homosexuality is filled with pronouncements like, “The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested in, nor capable of, a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage,” his voice fairly oozing distaste and condescension.”
Davis and Heilbroner’s deft editing of these clips sometimes exploits temporal incongruities and changing cultural mores to tilt toward comedy. A 1950 film on group therapy sees little Albert’s behavior as problematic as he matter-of-factly pats down his hair and adjusts his collar, his movements “not characteristic of a real boy.” In another gem, a warning voice eerily asks, “Do you want your son enticed into the world of homosexuals or your daughter lured into lesbianism? Do you want them to lose all chance of a normal married life?”
Having finally faced down the draconian laws, cultural bias and constant police harassment so vividly recaptured in the film’s montages, the exhilaration and rage that still reverberate in the accounts of those who participated in the Stonewall uprising make perfect sense, as celebrants commemorate their “Rosa Parks moment.”