Documentary brings Stonewall events back to life


By Warren Allen Smith

“Did Judy Garland’s death have something to do with it?” asked one of the ticket holders of the panel members following the national premiere of “Stonewall Uprising” on June 16.

Derisive laughter not only from those on the panel but also from other audience members was the response. Danny Garvin, featured in the film and one of the surviving Stonewall street kids, made it clear that there was no connection…whatsoever. Martin Boyce’s “Well, I went to her funeral” resulted in further laughter.

Kate Davis and her husband, David Heilbroner, who co-directed “Stonewall Uprising,” followed the film’s showing by introducing various individuals who helped make the documentary possible. Garvin, one of the youngsters on the first night of the uprising in June 1969, and Boyce, an observer who later studied history at New York University, were key characters in the film.

Garvin while in the Navy was so terrified that he would be found out to be “a faggot” that he had tried to slit his wrists. Boyce was scared that his wheelchaired mother would die if she found out. Jerry Hoose with humor told of his terrifying life and how afterward he had helped plan the first gay rights march. Martha Shelley, who later was an active Gay Liberation Front member and helped form the Lavender Menace, was eloquent in describing how lesbians were attacked from all sides – though she was not present at the premiere.

At a later showing, David Carter introduced rioter Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt.

The film — using newsreel clips, public service announcements that warned children about homosexuality, and a 1966 CBS report — made it clear why homosexuals in the 1950s and 1960s were so terrified and why many wisely moved from rural areas to cities. It was a time when psychiatrists might prescribe lobotomies to those who could not be cured of their “sickness.” Mike Wallace in the CBS report said in a condescending voice, “The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested in, nor capable of, a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage.” To this, those in the packed theater erupted in laughter.

The movie’s premiere run, which was sold out on June 16, will continue only until the end of the month, but the film already is being seen in 30 cities nationwide. A major documentary, it is based on historian David Carter’s book “Stonewall, the Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution” (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004).

Unlike a 1995 film, “Stonewall,” which was a fictionalized account of a memoir by openly gay historian Martin Duberman, “Stonewall Uprising” is a scholarly examination of the events that preceded, as well as followed, what some gays at the time thought was only “a happening” and which others described as a riot. 

The film makes the point that the uprising, not technically a riot, was the result of a minority’s frustration over being considered psychologically troubled people as well as ruthless predators. Gay bars, which did offer a degree of protection as a place to meet and dance, were now being attacked as well. Lesbians were laughingstocks. Homosexuality, except in Illinois, was illegal. 

Two Village Voice journalists, whose office was then near the Stonewall, described in the film their being terrified after accompanying the police into the bar, then finding they were locked inside. They feared they’d be attacked if the rioters stormed into the bar. Although police were known to obtain money from bar owners, “the pigs” felt secure in knowing that homos were too “limp-wristed” to fight back. This time, however, the homos were throwing objects and literally attacking uniformed officers. It was the first stirring of what came to be known as “gay pride.”

Before the film, when asked what they expected, three attendees responded variously:

“How can such a movie be made? There weren’t any photos, no shots of the riots.”

“I’m from Martinique, and I am interested in what the film will show.”

“Ask me after the film.”

After the film, three entirely different individuals responded:

“Wow, it was FAB-ulous. I wasn’t born until after 1969, and I’m really, really amazed at what it was like to have been gay then.”

“Whoever found all that archived material deserves plenty of credit — I didn’t know it existed.”

“The question from some ticket holder about Judy Garland was one I was going to ask — that guy who was there, Danny, made it clear to me that Garland’s death had no connection. I didn’t realize some of the rioters were still alive!”

In its disinterested and scholarly way, the film includes Seymour Pine, the cop who led the raid and explained in detail what had happened from his viewpoint. Pine came across as a tragic figure, inspiring because of his former, as well as present, views. Former Councilman and later Mayor Ed Koch was shown on record as having supported police crackdowns. Although, to his credit, Koch admitted that the city government and the police were out to get homosexuals, some moviegoers jeered. In the 1950s, Mayor Robert Wagner Jr.’s Democratic Party administration had been one in which entrapment of homosexuals was common. Mayor John Lindsay’s Republican administration (1965 to 1969) curbed entrapment but recognized that organized crime figures now controlled the gay bar scene. Gay-owned bars came much later.

Following the premiere, audience members were invited to go to the present Stonewall bar on Christopher St. to talk with Boyce, Carter, Garvin, Hoose and some of those who had made the film. 

Again, three individuals volunteered their views:

“I’d like to see this film available to high schools, colleges and universities, or even be free online.”

“I don’t much like documentaries, but at this one I certainly didn’t fall asleep.”

“Look, kiddo, you shoulda been here before this bar turned into a tourist site.”

It will be difficult to find a better visual presentation anywhere of the Stonewall uprising and the cast of players, who were unaware at the time that this moment would eventually become one of international importance. 

“Stonewall Uprising,” a film by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, showing through June 29, at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. For information, call 212-727-8110 or visit https://www.filmforum.org/ .