June 24, 2019 at 5:53 pm PDT | by John Paul King
Classic documentary returns for Stonewall 50th

Two shirtless guys on beach, circa 1960s, are part of the history documented in “Before Stonewall.” Image courtesy of First Run Features.

In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, First Run Features has launched a theatrical re-release of the legendary 1984 documentary “Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community,” which opens in Los Angeles on June 28, at Laemmle’s Ahrya Fine Arts (8556 Wilshire Blvd).

The documentary, which has been digitally restored from the original 16mm negative in a process supervised by director Greta Schiller, first premiered in the early years of the AIDS crisis, then only 15 years since the riot which has been credited with giving birth to the modern lesbian and gay liberation movement.

Fifty years later, even with the substantial progress that has been made, LGBT Americans still find themselves fighting on many fronts for full equality, in the U.S. and around the world.  As we mark a half century from the riot (or uprising, as many prefer to call it), “Before Stonewall” comes as a potent reminder of what life was like for LGBT people before it happened.

As the title implies Schiller’s movie digs into the history of the years before that 1969 police raid which led to three nights of rioting and demonstration in the streets of Greenwich Village by New York’s gay community.  Through eye-opening historical footage and interviews with those who lived through the often brutal closeted history of those years before, it reveals the sometimes horrifying stories of public and private LGBT existences in America since the early 1900’s. It also relives the emotionally-charged sparking of today’s gay rights movement, from the events that led to Stonewall and beyond, to observe many other milestones in the fight for acceptance.

Narrated by iconic author Rita Mae Brown, the film features groundbreaking interviews with Ann Bannon, Martin Duberman, Allen Ginsberg, Barbara Gittings, Harry Hay, Mabel Hampton, Dr. Evelyn Hooker, Frank Kameny, Audre Lorde, Richard Bruce Nugent, Jose Sarria and many more.

Robert Rosenberg, who co-directed with Schiller on the film, spoke with the Blade about the re-release, and about things that have come to light about the uprising since it was originally made that he would have included if it were being made today.

“I would like to have included more on some of the other community acts of resistance that were lead-ups to Stonewall,” he says, “such as the organized protests at Black Cat bar in Los Angeles, and the Compton Cafeteria riot in 1967 in San Francisco where transgender customers resisted. Truthfully though, our film is more about the social, cultural, and political changes that lead up to the Stonewall, through the 20th century, than the riots themselves.”

He also touched on recent discussion around the narrative of the resistance being started by Marsha P. Johnson or one of the bar’s other patrons we would now identify as trans.

“Clearly the Stonewall Inn was the kind of club which attracted many who were more marginalized,” he says, “more ‘outsiders’ if you will, and transgender patrons were a visible part of that.  Our film doesn’t get into the details of who started what, and I’m not sure it’s easy to untangle that, as there was clearly little real media coverage at the time – LGBT folks were not considered newsworthy! It’s important to honor everyone who resisted, and to realize that often those with the least to lose put themselves at the forefront of our struggles. Our community is a diverse rainbow indeed.”

What does Rosenberg think today’s generation can gain from becoming familiar with queer history before Stonewall?

“That’s the key question,” says Rosenberg, “the key reason for the film’s re-release. If we don’t understand what came before us, it’s hard to truly understand the present, and to have perspective on our communities, and for our activism. LGBT history was never saved, studied, honored. It is more so today, but most people, gay, straight and otherwise, are still not aware of the depth, the struggles, the beauty and the heroines and heroes who came before us. We filmmakers are so pleased that “Before Stonewall” still remains relevant, and that it’s still truly essential viewing.”

Close up of man in drag, circa 1950s. Image courtesy of First Run Features.

For tickets and further information visit the Laemmle Theatres website

Comments are closed
© Copyright Los Angeles Blade, LLC. 2020. All rights reserved.