Judge Brett Cullum heightens our awareness with this review of an important documentary.
"I never heard of the word 'lesbian,' but I knew enough to hide."—woman from North Carolina interviewed for Before Stonewall
Demonstrating gay pride was not always as easy as turning on Showtime or Bravo to check out the latest trendy gay television show. Before Stonewall is an Emmy-award-winning documentary that aired on PBS originally in the mid-'80s, and it offers a wealth of insight into the history of the gay community from 1920 through June of 1969. The film chronicles the lives of gays and lesbians through some of the roughest times to be queer in America—times when you could be arrested, hospitalized, or worse for being yourself. All in all it is a breathtaking snapshot of 40 years of oppression and silencing of the gay community.
Facts of the Case
Directors Greta Schiller (Greta's Girls) and Robert Rosenberg decided to intertwine the stories of men and the women in an effort to create a historical representation of the entire gay and lesbian community in one film. If the film missteps at all it is in trying to encapsulate 49 years of history into about an hour and a half. Some topics get short shrift, but the film moves at a good pace. It sounds like a dour topic, but most of the interviews are light and funny even when discussing the ugly truths of the time period. The film opens in the1920s, when Harlem was a great melting pot for any slighted culture. It goes through World War II, in which gays and lesbians served in many capacities, on to the witch hunt trials of the McCarthy era, and winds up in the turbulent summer night in Greenwich Village when a riot broke out after a police raid on the Stonewall Inn. Rita Mae Brown narrates the documentary, which mingles talking-head interviews with archival footage germane to each topic.
The video presentation is not in good shape. You get a fullscreen transfer, and the footage is dirty and grainy. At one point interviewee Barbara Gittings has a purple scratch dividing her face. I've heard some complain that the documentary looked better on PBS, but it must be daunting to try and master a 20-year-old low-budget documentary shot in 16mm that uses archival footage. The audio is a tinny 1.0 mono mix as well. You're not going to use this disc to showcase your home theater system any time soon. But the documentary itself is so important I am going to forgo docking its overall score for being poorly transferred. Anamorphic widescreen transfers and 5.1 stereo mixes are not the point with this release. Extras on the disc are limited to additional interview footage, which is in even worse condition than the feature itself.
If you are a member of the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community, this is mandatory viewing. If you're not, maybe you should consider it mandatory as well. Take it from a history major, you will walk away with a greater understanding of why the gay community has felt slighted. Forget about the marriage issue. These people were persecuted in horrible ways, and they had to fight tooth and nail just to be able to create a place in American society where they felt even mildly comfortable. In my home state of Texas, a gay person can still be fired just for being homosexual, and up until 2003 could be arrested for making love. Yes, we've come a long way with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Will and Grace, Ellen, and Queer as Folk. But the gay community is still discriminated against in many ways.
Before Stonewall captures gay poet Alan Ginsberg, lesbian author Ann Bannon, and a wide swathe of gay activists and normal folk telling their stories. It is in turns shocking, funny, sad, and enlightening. Ronald Reagan appears several times as well: first in an amusing clip from a movie he did about soldiers in drag, and then later in his life, talking about his conviction that homosexuality is an illness. Not that his opinion was apart from the norm: At the time, homosexuality was considered pathological. It wasn't a lifestyle but a scourge. It's hard to believe how threatened society was by these people who lived in secret and largely underground most of their lives. When you think that only 40 years ago women, African Americans, and gays were all considered second-class citizens, it's mind boggling. A good documentary paints a clear picture of its subject, and this one makes you feel like you're a part of the gay community struggling just to be able to live with all these constraints. Even as late as 1969 police would routinely raid gay bars and haul off every single patron to jail. Imagine: You're having a drink with friends, and the cops come in and take you all away. Would you be a little miffed?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only reason I can think of to not watch this film would be the technical aspects, but a bad transfer or mono sound isn't justification. If the topic offends you, then you should definitely watch it. I still encounter people who are convinced that somehow the homosexual chooses his or her lifestyle. Watch this movie, and then come back and tell me why people would choose to be discriminated against, incarcerated, or institutionalized.
Before Stonewall is a brave documentary that is a crucial DVD release. One of the best aspects of the digital format is the preservation of films that change the world, and this one had that power when it aired. It won an Emmy for Best Historical Program. It should be at least a rental if you haven't seen it.
Before Stonewall is free to go, and First Run Features is commended for finally putting this movie back into circulation. The "ladies" of Stonewall would be proud.
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