Under Pressure — Irfan Shah turns the hose back on the establishment with a ‘memento’ style look at films they either didn’t want you to see or didn’t want you to remember. Landmark documentary ‘Before Stonewall’ — an exploration of prejudice and gay pride in 1960s America — re-released with extras.
The secret histories of homosexual America are remembered in this absorbing documentary re-released on its twenty-fifth anniversary.
On June 27 1969, New York gay bar, The Stonewall Inn, was raided by the police. It was a tipping point in history – the three nights of rioting that followed helped to create the Stonewall pressure group and is considered the birth of the modern Gay Rights movement. The documentary takes five decades of archival film, movie clips and personal recollections of writers and journalists like Rita Mae Brown, Evelyn Hooker and Jim Kepner to explore the tumultuous events leading up the riots. The 2009 release includes further interview footage of Allen Ginsberg, Audre Lorde, Jose Sarria, a Q&A session with directors, Ken Livingstone, Greta Schiller and Richard Kwietniowski.
Poignant and quietly powerful, ‘Before Stonewall’ is a moving history of homosexuality in America told through a combination of talking heads and rich archive film footage. Along the way we are taken into Harlem speakeasies, army barracks and the courtrooms of the McCarthy witch hunts. We see embryonic gay rights movements coalesce ad evolve but are also given a glimpse of the sheer isolation felt by many forced to live secret second lives.
If anything, the ribbons of narrative drag a little in the middle but this is a minor fault as the accumulation of personal stories is ultimately powerful.
The most powerful moments in the documentary are provided not by the famous figures such as Allen Ginsburg but by the lesser known, ordinary people who describe their trials and small, tender victories – the man whose epiphany was realising that ‘we weren’t bad people, that we are good people’; the lesbian soldier who stood up to Eisenhower; the joyous reunion of the habitués of the Black Cat club, back together in happier, more open times. It is a quiet, understated and ultimately inspirational film.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Stonewall reporter and eyewitness, Lucian K. Truscott IV, tries to explode the myth that the police raid on the mafia-owned Stonewall was part of a broader crackdown on gay bars. Rather than being a deliberate ‘clearout’ of the gay community, Truscott argues that the Stonewall operation was the work of a Police Department deputy inspector, Seymour Pine who was convinced that The Stonewall was selling liquor without a license and was being used by a Mafia blackmail ring that was setting up gay patrons who worked on Wall Street. The Deputy Inspector is said to have carried out the operation without the knowledge of the officers of the local police precinct, whom he suspected of taking payoffs from the Stonewall and other Mafia-run gay bars in the Village. The bar’s regulars, Truscott goes on, ‘were mostly teenagers from Queens, Long Island and New Jersey, with a few young drag queens and homeless youths who squatted in abandoned tenements on the Lower East Side’.
Who do we believe? Perhaps we’ll never know. Virtually no TV or newspaper footage exists of the riots themselves – and so we have virtually no proof of who was there and who wasn’t.