Outside a Mafia-run dive bar on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village in June 1969, three days of rioting spilled into the streets after police raided the Stonewall Inn, which catered to gay customers. (The “watering hole on the savanna,” one customer calls it.) Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s documentary “Stonewall Uprising” opens by noting that there are almost no photographs of the raid and riots: re-creations and other footage from the era are used. Combined with vital interviews from social observers and witnesses, it’s a powerful glimpse of an era that may be past but ought not be forgotten. A few weeks before seeing “Stonewall Uprising,” I stumbled across an eyebrow-raising take on their pungent documentary, from notable blog-curmudgeon Jeffrey Wells, who exulted, “Oh, to have been gay and feisty and lucky enough to have been at the Stonewall Inn in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, which is where and when the gay rights movement began. You can’t ‘nice’ people into abandoning oppression or prejudice. You have to tell them to stop it, and nothing says ‘no’ like a little street action.” Coming from an older, heterosexual male like that writer, it’s a peculiar description that’s hard to shake: where the figures in the film see it as “the Rosa Parks moment,” Wells also envied that adrenaline-surged moment of battle, of bonding in battle, of the physicality of numbers, that marks street protest or violence. The context given by the film shows the social moment to be more deadening than alluring, at least before that flashpoint. “We didn’t have the manpower,” a police inspector recalls, and the manpower for the other side was coming like it was a real war. And that’s what it was. It was war.” Working with PBS-style temperament, Davis and Heilbroner array footage to place social strictures in context, including a Mike Wallace report on “disgust” toward homosexuals. The 1960s had not fully erupted: “There was tremendous freedom,” says one, then another, “it was free, but not quite free enough for us.” Based on David Carter’s “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution.” 82m. HDCAM video. (Ray Pride)
“Stonewall Uprising” opens Friday at the Music Box.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.