a film by Greta Schiller
1984 | 87 mins | US
›› Before Stonewall
our fight for social and political justice - before Stonewall
Before Stonewall by Greta Schiller Gay rights have advanced so much in recent years that it is easy to forget that what the majority of us, at least in certain parts of the world, take for granted, was once but a dream. This engrossing documentary reminds you of the fact and along the way details our fight for social and political justice from 1920's Harlem life, to the night when gay America finally came out of the closet to let its political voice be heard.

For let us not forget that this was an era in which those of homosexual orientation were considered the lowest of the low. It was a time when gay cinema was unheard of, gay rights non-existent and consensual sex between two men not only illegal in the eyes of the law, but open to blackmail. In short, to be gay during this period was largely to feel the emotions of self-hatred, shame, if not suicide.

Before Stonewall by Greta Schiller That said and even in an age of intense homosexual repression, there were glimmers of hope. And ironically no more so than during times of war, when in risking life and limb for their country, many homosexual men and women were to find that they - were not alone. Yet for every rainbow gain, there were those unremitting in their opposition to such, inparticular during the McCarthy reign of terror on anyone of differing political or sexual orientation. Even then, urban pockets of relative sexual freedom were starting to emerge, that together with the formation of groups that whilst far removed from the 'out and proud' status of today, were nevertheless doing their bit to counter ingrained prejudice. Yet inspite of such and the gradual emergence of written and photographic works dedicated to a same-sex readership, the pre-Stonewall era was still a period in which gay sex was illegal, subject to prosecution and imprisonment.

To that end, the real stars of this Emmy® Award winning documentary are the activists themselves, whose fascinating recollections, coupled with archive footage of the time, paint a vivid picture of what it was like to live through a period in which police harassment was common place and that of what you let risk for just being your homosexual self. Or to quote direct: "they would use any excuse to arrest you, as long as they knew you were gay ... they would back a paddy wagon up to the door ... taking 'em down, booking 'em. And the next day, in at least one of the newspapers, all of the names of the people who were booked at this gay bar or that gay bar would be published - and people lost their jobs."

Only just as there are too many stories to relate here, including Johnnie Phelps' now classic 'Flying the Flag' encounter with General Eisenhower, the problem with this absorbing feature is the same, given it is almost impossible to adequately detail five decades of change in just under ninety minutes. And yet in a kind of snapshot style this work attempts to do just that, documenting the key social and political events instrumental in the advancement of gay rights. Yet the linchpin of this work remains the series of moving, but spirited interviews with elderly activists recalling the gay underground of their day, a reminder that there was a gay life, of sorts, pre-Stonewall.

As a eye-opening insight into those who courageously fought for our rights in times - not that long ago, it goes without saying that this touching, compelling, but above all enlightening film is highly recommended.

Gay Visibility - overt. 
Overall - file under ... 5 stars. 
available on DVD as part of the Peccadillo Pictures catalogue
narrative by Rita Mae Brown
Robert Rosenberg / Co-Director, John Scagliotti / Executive Producer
featuring: Maua Adele Ajanaku, Red Jordan Arobateau, Ann Bannon, Lisa Ben, Ivy Bottini, Teddie Boutte, George Buse,
Jackie Cachero, Paul H Clarke, Carroll Davis, Martin Duberman, Grant Gallup, Allen Ginsberg, Barbara Gittings, Barbara Grier,
Mabel Hampton, Harry Hay, Dorothy (Smilie) Hillaire, Dr Evelyn Hooker, Jheri, Frank Kameny, Jim Kepner, Audre Lorde,
Nancy MacCullock, Richard Bruce Nugent, Harry Otis, Johnnie Phelps, Craig Rodwell, Ted Rolfs, Chuck Rowland,
Jose Sarria, Donna Smith, Ricky Streiker, Marge Summit, Hank Vilas and members of the 'Black Cat' reunion
Copyright 2009 David Hall - www.gaycelluloid.com.
archive reference #068
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