Opens Fri., June 25
I grow so weary of lodging this complaint: Documentaries that are purely expository are a waste of the medium. Books are the most thorough way to convey hard facts; documentaries that merely offer information are essentially heavily abridged books for people too lazy to read.
But I’ve said this too many times before. So let me cry uncle: Stonewall Uprising—which credits itself as an adaptation of David Carter’s book Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution—is a first-rate example of this noxious kind of documentary. You could always read Carter’s book and learn far more than you do from Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s film. But if a superficial understanding is all you desire, then you likely can’t do better than Stonewall Uprising.
The story, often told: In the wee hours of a summer night in 1969, patrons of the Village’s Stonewall Inn, a well-known gay bar, finally had had it up to here with the all-too-common raids on homosexual nightspots, and on homosexual activity in general. Spurred on by the civil rights movement, they fought back, causing several nights’ worth of mayhem and turning the gay rights movement into something concrete and monstrously effective.
There have been plenty of docs (and books and fiction movies, etc.) about the riots, though few as comprehensive as Stonewall Uprising. The collection of talking heads is culled from all angles, including one of the NYPD’s “morals officers,” who was shitting his pants the first night of the riots. Aesthetically, the filmmaking is close to modern-day PBS (where the film will doubtless find permanent residence). Davis and Heilbroner try to stir up a lather once they get to the riots, but the film really needed a stylist like Brett Morgen, whose Chicago 10 is one of the few docs to put cinema over mere storytelling.
Uprising is more fascinating in the build-up, anyway, presenting a pre-gay rights world of such thorough ostracization it seems like science-fiction. The subjects keep offering small and sometimes darkly amusing tidbits: police ambushing people in public bathrooms; people would fuck in meat trucks after hours, amidst foul stenches; and gay bars wound up funded, largely, by the mafia, who’d charge steep prices for stolen hooch. Uprising could stand to be deeper; it never goes into today’s gay rights, and it too briefly touches on the pros and cons of violent protest. But for a film that’s mostly surface-level, there’s a lot on the surface.