Parallels between the civil-rights and gay-rights movements aren’t always comfortably drawn, but in the Stonewall riots, the latter had its Rosa Parks moment—that dignifying, unifying event where a group of people stopped accepting their lot as second-class citizens and finally started fighting back. On June 28, 1969, when the police carried out the latest in a regular series of raids at the mob-run Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, young men accustomed to being shuffled into paddy wagons decided to fight back, gathering forces for a three-night war against the police. From spark to embers to flames, a movement that didn’t previously exist suddenly and organically coalesced at street level, and the rest was (and continues to be) an evolving history.
The solid documentary Stonewall Uprising doesn’t have much footage from the event itself—only some photographs and film clips of the chaotic street scene—but directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner unite several of the key players and provide stark contrast between the world before and after Stonewall. Packed with scaremongering propaganda films and TV exposés—including one alarmist Mike Wallace special called “The Homosexuals,” which posits gay promiscuity as scientific fact—the early section reveals a country in which gays and lesbians had zero protections under the law, and were often harassed and persecuted via obscure statutes. Being openly gay was never an option, and even in a liberal city like New York, gay people were pushed far into the margins, hooking up in unclean places like the movie theaters on 42nd Street, empty semi-truck trailers, and, well, shitholes like the Stonewall.
Davis and Heilbroner lean a bit too hard on the most outrageous forms of abuse in the pre-Stonewall era, as opposed to the everyday traumas of living in the closet, but Stonewall Uprising picks up momentum once it starts detailing the event itself, drawing on the vivid memories of the people who lived it. The directors score a coup in getting testimony from the police officer who led the raid, a now-elderly gentleman who freely confesses the fear that rippled through his unit, and his regrets in having been on the wrong side of history. Forty years and several generations later, Stonewall remains the formidable beachhead of a persistent struggle.