“Stonewall Outloud” is an important documentary from the people who brought you “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The documentary takes us back to New York 1969 when the NYPD raided the Stonewall Inn, a haven for the LGBTQ community. That fateful night on June 28, 1969, was when the patrons fought back, standing their ground for their right to exist in society without fear of persecution. It was a night that would mark the first Pride demonstration.
Filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary worked with Davy Isay’s StoryCorps to connect the past to the present. By using the archival material, those accounts are brought to life. The voices of Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Geane Harwood, among others, recount the events of that fateful night that would pave the way for the gay rights movement.
The StoryCorps archive audio formed the basis for the documentary. “It was the fact that that was the very first documentary about Stonewall [that inspired the documentary].” Bailey says. “It was audio-only. Very sadly, many of those people who were at Stonewall and in the documentary are no longer with us. It’s fabulous that some are still here, but it drove home the importance of telling those stories because if they don’t get told, they are in danger of being forgotten. If we forget Stonewall, we forget so much of where we’ve come from as a community and how we got to where we are today. It’s that old cliche that if you don’t remember the past, you’re condemned to repeat it.”
Barbato adds, “The story of Stonewall is so important to Fenton and me. Without that uprising, we wouldn’t lead the lives that we lead. I think there was something else that was unique to this story, the main reason we made this film — it was all about young people. We’re old queens now, there was this opportunity to try to figure out that maybe young people would connect to this story.”
Barbato and Bailey teamed with YouTube and StoryCorps to tell the story, but they wanted to connect it to young people because it had such urgent message as 2019 commemorated the 50th anniversary of Stonewall.
‘That was really the number one reason we became interested in doing this film. The number one thing that drove us, the creative, the process and our passion. YouTube were amazing partners in talking about making this film and what it should be, together we all had something in common. How can we make a film about this important moment that might connect to young people?,” Barbato says.
The filmmakers decided the best way to connect those audio voices of the LGBTQ elders was through lipsyncing. It’s what they do on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ every week as the show’s contestants “lip sync for their lives,” Barbato says. “I have this theory about the power of lipsyncing. On ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ when people land one, it drives people crazy. It sometimes can feel more powerful than the actual original performance. I believe that’s because if someone can genuinely connect, it becomes this deep soulful connection. That’s what makes a great lip sync powerful, to begin with. It’s the finale of every episode, and it’s what inspired this idea, thinking about this magical moment when a lip-sync moves you.” There was certainly some hesitancy in using the approach for a documentary. “We didn’t know if it would work, but that certainly was the intent. When we were filming, ”we felt that magical connection as it was happening.”
Raja, Adam Rippon, Daniel Franzese and Lance Bass represent some of the voices. Bailey says watching the cast with the audio voices from the past was “emotionally overwhelming. You realize it was such a powerful moment. It was like opening a magical portal to the past.” He continues, “The filming of those connections were very moving and powerful for everyone in the room. It was like a sacred or spiritual experience when their mouths and those words connected, something happened that was transformative. and undeniably powerful. Everybody felt it.”
The production challenge for the team was that there wasn’t much archive footage — only the six photos that are seen in the documentary and the audio. “It was a unique challenge,” Barbato explains because, the Stonewall Riots had such a profound impact. “Much is spoken about it, but there is very little recorded detail of it.”
By telling the story of the Stonewall Inn and what happened that night, Bailey says, “In an age of unparalleled access to unparalleled amounts of information, in that scenario and that ever-present tsunami of information — history gets dusty, old or no longer relevant. It is incredibly relevant. As much as we are surrounded by information, paradoxically access to history is being somehow lost. I think it’s important to take history and catapult it into the present.”
Watching this unique and innovative, urgent documentary, you can see how the past and present “connect.” Bailey says, “I wouldn’t call them performances. I’d call them connections.”
Their success was lip-syncing was to use that winning formula, connect the voices to reach as many people as they could with it. “It is so important, not just to remember, but to live that resistance and have that clarity about who we are, and that resolve to be seen and heard. The urgency dictated the length of things,” Barbato says, explaining why the film was a short documentary.
Barbato adds, “We really had a mission. We wanted to make a film that could connect. We felt it was important to make a film that young people might take with them the urgency and the import of what the Stonewall riots were all about and why we must never forget them.”
The current world of documentary filmmaking is such that many themes are now urgent with a call to action. Or a call to remember the past so we don’t repeat it. Bailey says, “There are so many ways to tell a story. There are far more ways to tell a story that is authentic, powerful and moving than perhaps previous decades of documentary film have ever thought of and allowed. True stories are so important in this mad Orwellian fake news climate in which Trump has infected news media and created this fog of gaslighting. In that toxic environment, documentaries can be a beacon of truth.”