(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Reverend's Reviews: Uprise and Shine

It's been nearly 41 years since a gallant band of lesbian women, gay men, bisexual and transgender individuals and drag queens famously fought back against the New York City police department during one of the PD's frequent raids on the Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall was a Mafia-owned but very popular watering hole in Greenwich Village (it is still in existence today, sans Mafia). No one could have guessed that the event begun on June 28, 1969 would launch the modern fight for GLBT equality.

Stonewall Uprising (from First Run Features) is an excellent and insightful documentary opening today at the Landmark NuArt Theatre in LA. It is the first movie to draw extensively from vintage film footage and photographs in recounting this historic event. While a fictionalized drama, Stonewall (1995), and the acclaimed doc Before Stonewall (just reissued on DVD) have previously told some of the story, viewers now have a unique opportunity to see and hear from those who were actually there.

While the unexpected death of entertainer Judy Garland a week before and her subsequent funeral in NYC have often been cited as emotional sparks that lit the figurative fire under what would become the Stonewall explosion, there is no mention in Stonewall Uprising of Dorothy as a catalyst. Instead, the 1960's race riots, Vietnam protests, class differences and increased police raids of gay bars during an election campaign are cited as the primary provocations. As one legal commentator in the film reports: "At its peak, 500 people per year were arrested for 'the crime against nature' and 3,000-5,000 people were arrested each year for solicitation and loitering crimes in New York City." Most were gay men or lesbians.

Former police chief and eventual mayor of New York, Ed Koch, confesses to frequent police entrapment of homosexuals during the 1960's. The doc also features a segment in which Detective John Sorenson, then of the Dade County, Florida sheriff's department, lectures an assembly of wide-eyed high school students about the "danger" of "turning queer." As he bluntly informs them, "The rest of your life will be a living hell."

Based on a book about those fateful nights in June 1969 by David Carter and produced by award-winning documentarians Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (Scopes: The Battle Over America's Soul), Stonewall Uprising is an inspiring chronicle of the birth of "gay power." As one participant reflects, "We became a people — brothers and sisters — that night." Other commentators and participants featured in the film are Village Voice reporter Howard Smith, activist John O'Brien and, via excerpts from his reviled CBS report on homosexuality, Mike Wallace.

Perhaps most telling of the progress that's been made since 1969, though, is among the NYC police. A now long-retired officer who barricaded himself in the Stonewall when it became clear the police were outnumbered declares, "It was terrifying; everybody knew (the riots) weren't normal stuff." Today, however, members of the NYPD — GLBT and straight — traditionally march together each June in New York's GLBT Pride parade.

UPDATE: Stonewall Uprising is now available on DVD from

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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