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Magazine Features in this issue:
Switzerland's Capital Cool
Prop 8 trial set to resume in mid-June
Gays speak out against Arizona
A league of their own?
Not just a riot
Northern Latitudes
An about-face over Don't Ask¸ Don't Tell?
 Magazine Feature Features Archive  
June 2010 Email this to a friend
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Not just a riot

By Jay Blotcher

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American history is indivisible from American myth. The midnight ride of Paul Revere was far shorter than Longfellow claimed, and young George Washington's toppled cherry tree was pure fancy. Ask a seasoned New Yorker about the roots of the famed 1969 Stonewall Riots, and he may insist that its seed of discontent was the death of entertainer Judy Garland, and the protest's opening volley was a high heel thrown at cops by a drag queen.
†The bracing new documentary Stonewall Uprising (First Run Features) finally lays to rest some well-worn myths. It substitutes the soft tissue of fiction with the exoskeleton of historical fact. In a sleek, compact 82 minutes, co-directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner present a fascinating examination of a watershed moment, born of equal parts corruption, rebellion and serendipity.
†As one interviewee in the film says, his voice reflecting both wonderment and a sense of joy, "That night, the police ran from us -- the lowliest of the low. And it was fantastic."
†Davis and Heilbroner, a husband-and-wife team, have produced documentaries for 15 years, including gay-themed works such as the award-winning Southern Comfort, a portrait of a male transsexual, and Anti-Gay Hate Crimes and Transgender Revolution, both for A&E Networks. Davis was also an editor of Jennie Livingston's groundbreaking Paris is Burning.
†"We share a natural interest in other kinds of people," said Davis, calling from a cell phone on a Connecticut highway. "Different cultures, people who were disenfranchised, who needed a voice, who needed their rights fought for." She and Heilbroner are driving back to Manhattan in the rain after a day of shooting an HBO documentary in Connecticut. Davis handles the interview while Heilbroner handles the road. But when a question intrigues him, he takes the phone.
†When asked what a heterosexual couple can bring to the saga of Stonewall, Davis chafes at the question. "I don't quite understand why anybody would assume I'm heterosexual," Davis said, "just because I'm married. I've never really classified myself that way."
†"I've been outspoken about gay rights for years," Davis said, tracing her efforts back to prep school in 1976, when she began a gay rights club and then took a female date to the senior prom. (Davis wore the tux.)
†Sexual orientation aside, the documentary team were well qualified to handle the tale of the birth of the modern gay rights movement. But until WHBH Boston's The American Experience series approached them in late 2008, Davis had assumed the story had been told on film already.
†In fact, it had not. The bookending documentaries Before Stonewall and After Stonewall depicted life before and after the main event. The 1995 film Stonewall was more a fanciful movie musical than a history lesson. WGBH wanted the story to be told by those who had been present that June evening in 1969. Several of them had already been interviewed for David Carter's Stonewall (St Martin's Press, 2004), which became the blueprint for the film.
†A muscular, well-researched book that was equal parts bold journalism and masterful oral history, Carter's Stonewall placed the riots in their proper sociocultural context, while surmounting the academic overwriting and politically correct theorizing that had marred previous print efforts.
†Davis called the project "the chapter of a history that hadn't been told," and she and her creative partner began their research. Focusing on the riot alone would not fully illuminate the subject, they decided; the past was prologue and viewers needed to understand the conditions in New York City that set the stage for a few memorable nights of street theatre -- "why that kind of blow-up was almost inevitable," Davis said.
† Stonewall Uprising drops us into a New York City that is far from a paragon of tolerance: even in the late 1960s, laws that limited the freedoms of gays and lesbians remained on the books, many dating back for more than a century.† (New York City's law against crossdressing, applied disproportionately upon gay men in club raids, had been enacted in 1845.) Another law forbade members of the same sex to dance together in public venues. The Stonewall Inn was a Mafia-operated joint -- gangsters liked money far more than they hated homosexuals. In the film, the dingy Christopher Street club, described as "a toilet" even by its most faithful habitués, drew crowds because it allowed men to dance cheek to cheek.
†Combining rare photographs, newspaper clips and film footage, Stonewall Uprising conjures a bygone metropolis. Manhattan was steeped in an accepted level of homophobia that was upheld by moral crusaders and cheerfully implemented by New York City cops. We learn that the arrival of the 1964 World's Fair in Queens Meadow occasioned a renewed crackdown on undesirables, especially homosexuals. Tactics included cops wearing drag as tranny-bait and hunky plainclothes policemen cruising urinals in hopes of entrapping perverts. Gay men alerted one another to these interlopers, calling them by the code names Lily Law, Patty Pig and Betty Badge.
†We learn that Mayor John Lindsay ordered the gay bar raids that summer. Anticipating a tough reelection campaign, he wooed voters with a citywide vice sweep. A week before Stonewall, another Village gay bar was stormed by cops. The patrons took their lumps quietly. Had they not, gay history books would celebrate the Checkerboard Riots.
†The heart of Stonewall Uprising, however, belongs to the 18 witnesses who tell their stories. Some are historians and activists, but the majority were present on that sweltering June night. They range in demeanor and force, from a scrappy Jew to a rough-hewn Irishman, from a demure drag queen to a Village Voice reporter who filed one of the few eyewitness reports, from a leather man to a lesbian activist. And most notably, a nonagenarian retired police officer who wielded his club at a mob of fed-up street kids, hippies and, yes, the odd drag queen.
†Heilbroner, momentarily taking the phone from his wife as he drives, identifies a quality that marks many interviews.
†"People didn't treat Stonewall with a kind of sanctimonious earnestness," he said. "They were still the witty, Rockette-kicking rebels in their hearts. As much as they were still angry and also proud of what they had done, they had not lost their humor and perspective about things."
†Martin Boyce, now 62, agreed to share his story. It was a painful process to recall his younger self four decades ago; he was caring for his ailing mother and, in deference to her, remained closeted. But Heilbroner and Davis won him over, he said. "They were friendly and their bodies responded to you when you were doing well, when you were on a roll," Boyce said. "That would encourage me to go on and then actually open my memory."
†For all their resourcefulness, the filmmakers faced a serious challenge. In an era before handheld video cameras and iPhones, visual evidence of the Stonewall riots was scant.
†"There are about seven known photographs of the most important event in our film," Heilbroner said, taking the cell phone again. "What do you do with that as a filmmaker?"
†Heilbroner and Davis had seen the pitfalls of utilizing actors to stage live recreations -- a familiar gimmick on History Channel documentaries. "All I see are what's wrong with them," Heilbroner said. "They either look fake or they look cheesy. Always my suspension of disbelief is shot."
†To sidestep such problems, the directors assigned archival collectors to locate still photos and film footage of street protests that happened in late-"60s New York City, at night, with low buildings behind the demonstrators to match Greenwich Village architecture. Then, the directors gathered 14 young gay men and staged a mini-riot that they shot "intentionally badly." The resulting marriage of old and new works well, suggesting the chaos and exhilaration of the famed scrimmage between cops and gays -- as well as the odd visual poetry of the clashes.
†"It was so, so hard to do that," Heilbroner said of their gambit. "She and I were constantly looking at each other at the editing table at 11 o'clock at night going, "Are we going to be able to pull this off?' I think we did."
†Despite the film's harrowing moments, it ends on an affirmative tone. The riots gave way to community organizing -- often fractious but ultimately effective -- as well as Manhattan's first gay Pride march in 1970. Some rioters grew into bona fide activists; others simply returned to lives in the shadows.
†Raymond Castro, 68, a native of Spanish Harlem, was a Saturday night regular at the Stonewall Inn. "It was a fun place to be," he said. "Where else could you buy a watered-down drink at a high price and not complain about it?" In the documentary, he recalls how the cops dragged him to "the paddy wagon," and Castro suddenly rebelled; he grabbed the sides of the van and escaped.
†It was his first -- and last -- brush with the law. Castro left New York City and eventually settled in Madeira Beach, Florida, where he lives with his lover of 31 years. He agreed to be interviewed for Carter's book, as well as for the film.
†"It's not something that I kept quiet about," he said. "I'm not ashamed of it. If I had to do it all over again, I would." But activism is not the focus of his life; a cake decorator for a supermarket chain, Castro is battling stomach cancer. When he was diagnosed, doctors gave him five months to live. That was in 2008.
†"I've been a fighter all my life, okay?"
†The legend of Judy Garland as the mother of our community's liberation is missing from Stonewall Uprising. Heilbroner and Davis tried to confirm the connection with interviewees, but Stonewall veteran Danny Garvin, 61, stopped them short, explaining, "We were dancing to the Doors and listening to Janis Joplin; Judy was in her 40s. It'd be like Barbra Streisand dying and finding some 20-year-old kids rioting about that. It doesn't make sense."
† Stonewall Uprising will play cinemas this summer and will be broadcast on PBS next year.
†"My one hope for the film," Heilbroner said, "is that it would give the Stonewall uprising its recognition and its rightful place as a pivotal moment in the great story of human rights – not just gay rights. It's a Rosa Parks moment."

For specific screening dates and venues for Stonewall Uprising, visit firstrunfeatures.com/stonewalluprising.html.

Author Profile:  Jay Blotcher

Jay Blotcher lives in the Hudson Valley of New York state.

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