PBS documentary about watershed event will see theaters before broadcast

Stonewall Uprising

on June 20, 2010 by Pam Grady

The police raid on the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969 was supposed to be just like any other. The gay patrons of the bar would be loaded into paddy wagons, making good on reelection-hungry New York Mayor John Lindsay's promise to "clean up" the city. But in the swelter of the night, the customers inside the bar and the community outside on Christopher Street fought back, resulting in three nights of riots that gave birth to the modern gay movement. That pivotal moment in history is captured in Stonewall Uprising, a documentary made for PBS' American Experience series that will first enjoy a limited theatrical run before airing on television. Educational rather than entertaining, the film will reap modest ticket sales among history and political junkies, especially among younger filmgoers unfamiliar with the events that surrounded the Stonewall riots.

Reenactments supplement archival footage and talking head interviews of an event scandalously underreported at the time (the New York Times emphasized that four policemen were in what the paper described as a "near riot," while the paper's Sunday edition offered the catty headline, "Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad"). But before they get to the actual events of 1969, filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner put the situation into context. Using interviews and excerpts from educational films and news reports, including a 1966 Mike Wallace CBS story called "The Homosexuals," the film paints a grim picture of officially sanctioned persecution. In New York alone, up to 5,000 people were arrested annually. Others found themselves in mental wards, subjected to aversion therapy, lobotomy and even castration.

Despite all that, a gay scene developed in New York's Greenwich Village In the summer of 1969, the Stonewall Inn was a popular spot, an unlicensed, Mafia run bar that paid protection to the local police precinct. The six cops that descended on the place were from out of the area and seriously outmanned when the neighborhood decided to fight back, refusing to stand down even when back up in the form of riot police arrived on the scene. "We had discovered a power that we weren't even aware we had," is how one Stonewall veteran remembers it.

Davis and Heilbroner have pulled witnesses in from all sides of the spectrum: Stonewall Inn patrons who were in the bar when events started to unfold, people who were in the thick of it in the street outside, a pair of Village Voice reporters who worked their way inside the bar and the cop who was in charge of the raid. Stonewall Uprising is most riveting not in the archival material or the reenactments but in the emotions its witnesses recall, and the pride for what they accomplished. They were at ground zero during a profound change to the world. How big a transformation is evident in the testimony of the cop who admits, "You know they broke the law, but what kind of law was that?"

Distributor: First Run Features
Directors/Producers: Kate Davis and David Heilbroner
Screenwriter: David Heilbroner
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 82 min
Release Date: June 16 NY


Tags: Kate Davis, David Heilbroner

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