Not to put too fine of a point on it, but Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s essential new history of the events and repercussions of the Stonewall riots is about as expert a piece of analytic documentary filmmaking as can be conceived. All you up-and-comers with a talking-head PBS retrospective in the can, get out your reporter’s pads and take notes. Three well-defined acts, several compelling firsthand accounts from both sides of the riot (or uprising, as a Village Voice reporter who was on the scene asserts), and one surprisingly underserved story make for a film with the lovely attribute of providing more than you expect at every turn.
The filmmakers masterfully unpack the cultural mores and revolutionary undercurrents of the ’60s that led to the explosive mix of bigotry, passion, fear, and politics that coalesced outside Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969. The first third of Stonewall Uprising uses found footage to provocative effect—especially some truly jaw-dropping PSAs and a suspect Mike Wallace report titled “The Homosexuals”—to define gay identity and its active suppression in the 20 or so years before Stonewall.
So well-conceived and argued is this context that it seems the film’s effort to describe Stonewall itself won’t keep pace. It does: Davis and Heilbroner, with the help of a half-dozen Stonewall participants, bring pitch-perfect emotion to one of the vital turning points in American cultural life. Facing a unique challenge (that Stonewall was so seismic and spontaneous an event, virtually no photographic record of the first night of rioting exists), they present the moment of combustion full-scale using several traditional, subtle, but easy-to-forget techniques: colorful, very detailed descriptions and a heavy dose of humor. The movie even includes rare descriptions of the Stonewall interior in ’69 (for example: “A toilet,” as one commentator says).
In the movie’s final flourish, the nights of the riots are weighed against the ultimate redeeming lesson to take from Stonewall: It gave way to a peaceful gay rights movement, symbolized by the first gay pride parade. Applaud the directors for making no burdensome effort to force the film’s images of gay men and women marching toward Central Park for the first time into the current political debate. The message exists in and of itself: a longstanding injustice is still, after 40 years, unresolved.
The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival runs from April 8 to 11.