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The 1969 Stonewall riots in New York - a confrontation
that began between angry patrons of a drag bar in Greenwich Village and the oppressive New
York Police Department - constitute the watershed moment in modern gay history, the
event that catalyzed a budding political awareness into a blossoming mass movement.
In 1986 John
Scagliotti, et.al., made an Emmy-award-winning documentary, Before Stonewall, which
chronicled with skill the earlier political history of the gay/lesbian liberation
movement. Since, before Stonewall, so little attention was paid in the media to that early
political foundation building, Before Stonewall shared history that very few knew,
even within the gay/lesbian community.
Now Scagliotti, with
different colleagues, offers After Stonewall, a review of the history of the last
three decades, right up to the tragic Matthew Shepherd murder. This is a job of monumental
proportions, a very different challenge than that the filmmakers faced in Before
Stonewall. Since Stonewall, there has been substantially more exposure of events
affecting the community in the mainstream media as well as in the array of community
newspapers that burgeoned with the movement. The result is that most of what is in the new
film seems, perhaps, overly familiar, compared to the fresh and revelatory quality of the
earlier film. The impact, at least for anyone who hasn't had his/her head in the sand for
the past few decades, is diluted. Of course, for a new generation, and, indeed, for
generations yet to come, the film will be usefully instructional.
The nature of the
movement since Stonewall changed from that of small groups, often at the radical left, to
a broadly based mass movement gaining participation from the entire range of the political
and socio-economic continuum. So there is a far greater quantity of history to cover here
- thousands and thousands of people participating in the building of community in as many
Scagliotti makes a
valiant attempt to cram as much of that material as he can into an hour and a half, but it
seems an impossible task. The result is more a gloss, a sweeping picture, rather than one
with particular depth or new insight. It is slickly produced, using well edited archival
footage and talking heads, the latter of widely varying usefulness.
Perhaps the most
interesting of the talkers is Jewelle Gomez, a writer and a lesbian of color who is
sensitive, perceptive, and articulate. Dorothy Allison is always a pleasure to listen to,
and Rita Mae Brown is a hoot. On the other hand, the filmmakers seemed to have had trouble
getting usually articulate Congressman Barney Frank to say anything of significance here
and the Larry Kramer footage seemed wasted. Army Maupin, for all the media exposure he has
gotten, remains a thoughtful contributor to efforts like these and New York city
councilman Phil Reed effectively brings into the picture the experience of a black, gay,
HIV positive man. Conspicuously absent, even as the Names Project quilt is lauded, is its
founder, Cleve Jones. Bill Clinton's political missteps and key betrayals of promises are
clearly documented in the film, which may explain the absence of one of the most
charismatic speakers from the community in the past generation, Ginny Apuzzo, who holds a
high ranking position in the Clinton administration.
AIDS is dealt
with sensitively in the film and put into a useful historical context. There is just
passing mention of the roll of gays in the unions, but there is no mention at all of the
role of gay and lesbian newspapers, gay and lesbian businesses, or the proliferation of
corporate employee organizations. The filmmakers have been ultra sensitive to the role of
women and minorities, but even so, I would guess that transgenders and Hispanics will feel
invisible. This is not meant as a criticism, so much as a suggestion that the history of
the past three decades simply cannot be dealt with adequately in an hour and a half.
Still, there is a
cumulative power to seeing once again on the screen images from a generation of activism.
The power of the big events is visible - parades, marches on Washington, the display of
the quilt, the Gay Games. No one who has participated in such community- and
awareness-building events can fail to feel the emotion, the joy of a newly found or
renewed sense of liberation that participation in these massive events engenders.
So this is a
handsomely produced film that doesn't explore new territory or forge ahead with new
insight, but is useful, nonetheless, as a primer on the history of the period. Easy to
watch, its cumulative effect is certainly moving. And who could not end up liking a movie
that shares original footage of the Divine Miss M herself, doing her thing at the
- Arthur Lazere