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American Experience: Stonewall Uprising (DVD Review)

25 Apr, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Street 4/26/11
$24.99 DVD
Not rated.

Though the folkloric reaction to 1969’s famed NYPD’s Stonewall Inn bust has often been termed the Stonewall Riots, this 83-minute remembrance includes a lesson in semantics. As someone notes here, what happened on Jun 28 — and for an apparently indeterminate number of nights after — was, indeed, closer to an uprising. This was, after all, the ultimate in “we’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore “ sentiment, more than half-a-decade before the Paddy Chayefsky-Sidney Lumet Network saw the light of day.

It was then that the modern-day gay movement got good and launched — once gay customers in a Greenwich Village hole of a bar refused to disburse when the cops ordered them to do so. Interestingly, the joint was Mafia-owned because no one else had moved in to fill the need when gays (who then were regarded as criminals) found themselves without places to socialize, even in one of the country’s few free-and-easy cities. This was a natural enough move — the Mob, after all, already owned the jukeboxes — and it sparked a concept that had never before occurred to me: “Mob beer.” In that, if you don’t like the taste of this watered-down {insert rude noun}, to whom, exactly are you going to complain?

Directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, this look-back starts with a couple disadvantages. One is some thunder-stealing by a praised predecessor that I regrettably have never seen: 1985’s Before Stonewall (there was also an After Stonewall from 1999). The other is the scant existence of any on-the-spot news footage of the event itself, which would be anything but the fact today. (It’s noted here that the establishment print press, the New York Times perhaps worst of all, neglected to give such a watershed event much in-depth coverage). As a result, some of the events by necessity have to be re-enacted — which, as far as that practice goes, is handled seamlessly enough and with no duplicity. Still, it inevitably takes a little edge off the proceedings, which concentrates on the first night of an encounter.

What the documentary does have is lots of interviewees, who include incident patrons, two on-the-scene Village Voice reporters (the paper was nearby) and even a participating cop who gets in this chronicle’s final words (strong ones they are, too). The subjects are valuable as well in terms of establishing first-hand what gay life was like before the gay movement — a backgrounder that probably consumes half of Uprising’s running time. One of them talks about seeing newspaper stories on Liberace or Tennessee Williams or Truman Capote, none of whom seemed to be affected by both the city’s and obviously the country’s official attitude. But as far as his own acquaintances, he notes, they were always getting busted.

It’s obvious from all accounts that the police were scared at what they’d walked into, and the one who’s interviewed said it was as frightening as anything he’d experienced in the army. Those called into action, at least initially, weren’t that familiar with the local turf — which in typical Village fashion had a crazy-quilt assemblage of streets (you know: those parallel ones that turn perpendicular to each other a block or two away). Thus, many of those who fought back could momentarily disappear and confront the cops a couple minutes later from another direction after going around the block. Were they same individuals or different ones? — the police weren’t sure. With all the entrances and exits, it must have resembled a French farce.

Every once in a while, this documentary features something that will cause many viewers to do a double-take. One is a close-up photo of three mustached New York cops of the day — a trio almost anyone would peg as members of the Village People. Another is the bountiful clip sampling from a 1966 CBS Reports called “The Homosexuals,” which spouts assumption after assumptions about gays that have been long discredited. The Ghost of Ed Murrow (who died in ’65) must have been on vacation.

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