By the grace of God, Judge P.S. Colbert survived the Reagan administration.
"In the late '60s, I would rant and rave and complain and piss about the way gay people were treated in society. They were willing to pay exorbitant prices for watered-down drinks in vice-cop ridden bars. And be arrested and suffer through raids and exposure. That as far as they were concerned, this was their lot. And I couldn't understand that, you know? I mean, "When do you people get angry?" was my attitude."—Vito Russo
1969 is the perfect year for thumbnail historians to put hippie counterculture into perspective. In August, the movement reached its zenith at Max Yasgur's farm in upstate New York, during three days of peace, love, and mud bathing, better known as the Woodstock Music Festival. In December, the movement officially died after a day of incessant violence, capped by the murder of eighteen year old Meredith Hunter, stabbed and beaten to death by a mob of Hell's Angels, who were ostensibly employed as unpaid bodyguards for a Rolling Stones concert at Altamont speedway, just outside of San Francisco.
Ironically, the "gay community" was born that same year, after a violent confrontation. In the early morning hours of June 28th, a police raid of the Stonewall Inn (a Greenwich Village bar with a large gay, transgender, and crossdressing clientele), took an unexpected turn when those rousted violently resisted. It was the first blow to the system that oppressed them (codified by the American Psychiatric Association, which listed "Homosexuality" in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1973), and a first step in the long, continuing march towards equal rights.
"When Stonewall happened, I witnessed it, but I didn't take part in it," Russo recalled. "I remember sitting in a tree in the park and watching all this going on. It didn't do anything but scare me. I just thought that these were a bunch of crazy queens, and that they were going to get us all into a lot of trouble and that they should go home. None of this struck me in any way as political."
It wasn't until March, 1970—following the raid of another New York gay bar that inadvertently lead to one detainee death—that Russo got his political awakening. From there on, he steamed ahead until his untimely death in 1990 from AIDS-related causes, at the age of forty-four.
But the HBO Documentary Vito isn't the story of a radical, or even a political activist; it's the story of a man, much loved and admired by those who knew him. More importantly, it's a wonderfully illustrative explanation of why.
True, Russo became an activist, and most likely was called a "radical" in his time, but only because of his simple message: he was here, he was queer, and people should be used to it. After all, he reasoned, it's not as if Homosexuality was some craze that sprung up suddenly, like Beatlemania, or Mutton-chop sideburns, right?
"I never bought it, not for one single, solitary second," Russo said. "I don't know how I escaped it. I don't know what was different about the way I was raised or the way I reacted, But I never once, not for a second, believed that it was wrong to be gay, that it was a sin, that homosexuality was evil."
"I always knew they were full of shit and that I was right and that there was nothing wrong with this. 'Cause something this natural couldn't be wrong."
By drawing on his experience as a film buff, Russo made his point with the pioneering tome "Celluloid Closet," which paraded example after example of gay, lesbian and bisexual portrayals in world cinema, both obscure and mainstream (one blatant example comes from Wings, the very first Oscar-winning Best Picture), before the advent of the growth-stunting, all pervasive "Hays Code," which ruled American studio product with a neutering iron fist for nearly four decades before its official repeal in 1968, when it was replaced the MPAA ratings system, still in place today.
The success of this book made Russo a household name (in the gay and film-obsessed communities, at least) and in addition to establishing himself as a leading editorial writer, he broke new ground yet again by developing and hosting "Our Time," a New York based current-events series covering the depth and breadth of the gay community, in the first days of a new phenomenon known as cable television.
An activist? Certainly. But whereas the term has come to symbolize Propagandists and law-breaking for many, Russo was an activist in the purest form of the word; a vigorous advocate for his cause—one who shunned violence and intimidation, preferring logic and reason in his appeal for that most American of core values: social justice.
First Run Features does more than mere justice to this DVD release with a flawless 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation and equally commendable audio track (whether you choose the 5.1 surround or 2.0 stereo option). Speaking of options, one can choose to employ the English closed-captioning and/or a commentary track, featuring a round table of interviewees from the film, and led by Producer/Director Jeffrey Schwarz (Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story). Additionally, there are a number of worthwhile extras, including Interview Outtakes, and excerpts from Vito Russo's "Our Time" series, featuring appearances from Harvey Fierstein, Larry Kramer, and Lily Tomlin, among others.
What's a man now?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
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