Mini-review: Before Stonewall

// 12 July 2009

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, Peccadillo Pictures has re-released the 1984 documentary Before Stonewall in some cinemas and on DVD. They sent me a preview disc, which I’ve been meaning to watch and review for a while *ahem* but finally got around to watching it last week.

The documentary was directed by Greta Schiller, and gallops through from the 1920s to 1969, replete with interviews and archive footage, all narrated by feminist Rita Mae Brown (who was present on the night the Stonewall Inn was raided by police).

It’s a story of both fighting state persecution and a story of the development and greater visibility of US lesbian and gay culture (with some mention of bisexual people, but not so much trans people). There are some particular stand-outs – especially the early footage and interviews about Harlem in the ’20s, and stories of the liberating role of the second world war on gay and lesbian USians (not least in economic terms, when it comes to women, who were able to – to an extent – come out and live independently away from their families as a result of war jobs).

Before Stonewall also looks at the emergant gay rights movement, including the links with both the US civil rights movement and the women’s movement.

The real strength of the piece, though, is the focus on weaving individual histories into a whole. So one woman interviewed tells very calmly about her family finding out she was a lesbian, and how she was effectively kidnapped off the streets by the authorities and put in a mental institution. Schiller also includes a fantastic piece of film of a reunion of regulars at the Black Cat Cafe.

There are some celebrities though; as well as Alan Ginsberg, the piece includes a fantastic interview with Audre Lorde (and in fact one of the DVD extras is an extended version of this interview).

One of the DVD extras is a panel discussion, including the director, Ken Livingstone (who spoke at the first UK screening of the film in the ’80s), Alan Wakeman who was active in the Gay Liberation Front in London, and German film-maker Monika Treut. Schiller tells an anecdote that at the time of the release, one guy said to her that the film was women-dominated. She went back and checked, and almost to the minute, it equally represented women and men. He was so used to male-dominated accounts, that equal representation read to him as female-dominated.

Treut also talks about the reaction in Germany at the time of the film’s initial release, and particularly what a revelation the stories about World War II were; of course, while in the US it was a time of living more freely, lesbian and gay Germans were put in concentration camps.

You also get Tiny & Ruby as a DVD extra, which is according to the internet quite hard to find – a half-hour very warm documentary by Schiller about jazz trumpter (then) 78-year-old Tiny Davis and her partner of over 40 years Ruby Lucas, including loads of home video, interview footage, photos, etc.

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