After reviewing Before Stonewall, Judge Brett Cullum revisits the Village to explore the aftermath.
We've gotten to where we've nearly "them-ed" ourselves to death! […] This is America. There is no them, there is only us!—President Bill Clinton in a 1992 campaign speech
"I don't know how much we changed them, but we changed ourselves…"—Man remembering a sit-in during After Stonewall
I reviewed Before Stonewall a while back for this site, and it was a hard title for me to take on. It had a lot of very moving stories about homosexual men and women fighting for their very lives in a world that was not very aware of their existence. After Stonewall is just as hard to talk about, because it shows the same community fighting for rights, and, at one point, for compassion as the AIDS crisis mounts and the government seems not to respond. The gay movement had altered the American landscape, and forced its recognition by the country, only to end up wracked and grieving in the wake of a disease that decimated its ranks. Social histories are never easy things to document, because each person probably has a thousand things to say about every major event. I feared After Stonewall would suffer by tackling a community's history that was too broad once it hit the mainstream. In a way it does falter under the weight of its massive aspirations, but it also proves itself a worthy sequel to the 1985 documentary that came before it.
I could try to summarize the plot or events of the piece, but it covers a lot in ninety minutes. It starts off with the gay movement after the riots at Stonewall in 1969. The two sides of the gay community fought successfully in the early '70s to get the American Psychiatric Association to cease defining homosexuality as a disease. Then, a division was seen as lesbians began to join the Women's Rights movement, while gay men seemed to drift off into a haze of bathhouse and disco steam. The two camps split into two separate cultures that would not reunite until the specter of AIDS required them all to become politically active together. After Stonewall paints the political struggles in broad strokes as it chronicles many different movements within each decade. The only problem is it has to generalize and move quickly to capture everything. Fascinating topics often get two or three minutes, and then it's time to hit the next one. Ellen Degeneres coming out barely merits a mention, the red ribbon campaign gets nothing, and Clinton is backed into a corner in about two minutes over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Events become sound bites, and major struggles are rendered in montage.
The producers have assembled quite a remarkable set of panelists to provide the talking heads for this documentary: Armistead Maupin, Craig Lucas, Rita Mae Brown, Barney Frank, Larry Kramer, Elaine Noble, Harry Hay, and Susan Moir just to name a few. Unlike Before Stonewall they have footage to go along with the stories, since the history is more recent and they don't have to resort to the old "just a story with a photo" approach its predecessor had to take. They even use South Park clips now and then to punch things up a bit. Nice touch. And who narrates? Why it's Melissa Etheridge, who sadly never shows up on camera to talk about her own views. I would have loved to hear her side of the '90s, considering she was a major celebrity who knew the President, K.D. Lang, and Ellen rather personally. But I think the director of this piece really wanted to have people from the grassroots level telling their stories, like they did in Before Stonewall. That made sense for that piece, since there essentially were no out and proud celebrities in that era, but for After Stonewall I think it would make sense. Rock Hudson's death gave a face to AIDS, Ellen coming out on network television was a watershed moment, and RuPaul hitting MTV hard and fast as a black drag queen was remarkable. They do chronicle the rise of the Metropolitan church, but miss the rise of the Gay Press in many cities. Much effort is made to talk about San Francisco, but there's nary a mention of West Hollywood?
Another problem with the documentary is its juggling of all the camps within the movement. They seem very determined to represent gays and lesbians equally in the whole movie, but I wondered—where were the transgenders, gay Hispanics, and drag queens? What about bisexuals who also suffered miserably during the AIDS crisis, and were often targeted by both sides as particularly dangerous? A lot of times you will see the community referred to as "GLBT," and there was certainly enough gay and lesbian footage with no transgender or bisexual representation. It's a nitpick, but it's one that seems like a pretty serious omission when you realize that half the community is not shown at all. Again, the filmmakers are falling victim to the weight of their subject. I think a miniseries was in order instead of a manageable eighty-eight minutes.
But all gripes aside, it is still an effective and moving portrait. I laughed and cried at all the right moments. And the gay community probably needs this movie now more than ever. When it was made there was a lackadaisical spirit heading into 2000 as if the community had won all of its major battles, and it was time to throw a big circuit party and wait for the inevitable right to marry to be bestowed. Well, politics are cyclical, and the backlash has begun anew. Comments being made today remind me of the Anita Bryant scandal in the '70s that After Stonewall chronicles so well. We're back to an age of misinformation and intolerance, as words like "Christian" and "Family Values" are thrown into the political arena at an alarming rate, disguising intolerance and hatred. And it's nothing new. Many of the interviewees in After Stonewall mourn the death of activism, but now it seems they need to be passing the torch to the next generation. After Stonewall correctly illustrates that for the GLBT community it has always been a struggle, but it also celebrates its victories. In the end, After Stonewall paints a more hopeful picture than Before Stonewall. It has more to deal with, but it serves the same purpose. It's education about a community that is often misunderstood even by its own members. It should be mandatory viewing for people seeking history in its purest form. Stories of importance told by people who were there, and saw all of it happen and felt the effects. In that it succeeds marvelously well. It's an important piece of work that needs to be seen.
As a DVD, it has little to offer technically. The picture is a grainy fullscreen transfer that varies in quality with its sources; the audio is a tinny stereo mix that never does more than just barely get the job done. Extras are mainly just extended interviews with the panelists and the director. Still, it rises above other DVDs with better transfers and stellar extras because it is important in its own right. It's vital filmmaking for a group that needs its message to be heard. Now more than ever.
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