The Stonewall riots, the beginning of the gay-rights movement in this country, are similar to other singular moments in history in that many of the details of what exactly happenedwhen and how it happened, as well as who was involvedhave become buried within the momentousness of the incident itself. We mark June 28 each year, but beyond the overview about what occurred in that tatty little bar in New York called the Stonewall Inn more than 40 years ago, much has become blurred.
There have been other documentaries and examinations of the riots that ensued when the disenfranchised patrons of that little bar fought back after the cops came in for one of their regular raids. But Stonewall Uprisingthe documentary by the husband-and-wife filmmaking team Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, based on the David Carter book Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolutionattempts to present the details and the timeline of the events of June 28, 1969, itself.
The movie utilizes eyewitness testimony; the scant extant footage and photos, recreation and "educational" period films; and other clips of the era to dramatize what happened. That the result is, ironically, a bit unfocused as it lays out the details of the crucial first night of the riots doesn't prevent it from being an important addition to Our gay cinematic history. And for the uninformed, there is much here that will illuminate the incident that was the epicenter of Our movement.
Davis and Heilbroner remind us at the outset that homosexual acts were a crime nationwide ( except within our fair state ) in 1969, when the riots occurred. With that fact in mind, we proceed to an overview of the plight of gay Americans during the '50s and '60s leading up to Stonewall. An almost invisible population shunned, reviled, openly hunted and subjected to horrendous psychological and physical persecution with almost a religious fervor when discovered by the public at large, it's no wonder that, as writer Eric Marcus comments, for gay people " [ t ] here was no 'out.' There was just in."
Slowly, urban centersespecially Greenwich Village in Manhattanbecame meccas for gays and lesbians. But even in these liberal pockets queers weren't embraced. As another participant in the film recalls, "It was free but not quite free enough for us." Segregated into mafia-owned bars, the "twilight people" ( who only came out at night ) nevertheless endured and, as the film reveals, a perfect storm of circumstances coalesced on that fateful night ( and for several nightsaccounts vary as to how manythereafter ) .
Throughout the movie the various talking heads provide a wealth of reminisces but, maddeningly, the filmmakers provide little or no background on these participants so it's often hard to place them in context ( and it doesn't help that after a quick graphic with a name and sometimes a designation like "writer," "historian," etc., the talking heads are never identified again ) .
Two of the on-camera subjects, however, are easy to recall: Seymour Pine, the 90-year-old "morals inspector" who led the raid for the cops and the former New York City Mayor Ed Kochboth of whom are given a lot more camera time than seems necessary. ( Also, why the hell it was important to include Koch, longtime enemy of Our People, is beyond me; it's not like he's needed for balance. )
Most powerful, of course, are the memories of the gay people who were there. At one point, one of them, John O'Brien, comments about the half dozen or so cops trapped inside the Stonewall Inn with the growing, angry mob outside: "It must have been terrifying for them. I hope it was." O'Brien's fury is still fresh after 41 years. In moments like that Stonewall Uprising transcends its sometimes fuzzy construction and the spark that ignited a revolution becomes tremendously palpable and galvanizing.
"'Bout time for me to get low," Robert Duvall as Felix Bush, a hated and feared backwoods hermit says to a speechless Bill Murray and Lucas Black, as Frank Quinn, a slick funeral home director and Buddy, his naïve, eager to prove himself assistant. After 40 years alone on his land, Felix wants to have a funeral party while he's still alive and for everyone in the county to come and share their stories about him. Felix's unusual request sets in motion one of the most pleasurable movies of the year.
Set in the late South in the 1930s, Get Lowfrom director Aaron Schneider ( making his feature debut ) and writers Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchellfinds us deep within Eudora Welty-Truman Capote-Harper Lee territory and the richly constructed characters, period detail and the compelling story, based on a real incident, offer the equally rich cast the chance to act their heads off.
Leading them all is Duvall as the eccentric Felix, giving one of those legendary performances that can only come after decades of legendary performances. ( Even his breathing has gravitas. ) He is matched in scene after scene by Murray ( delightfully droll ) ; Sissy Spacek, whose character has an old, mysterious connection to Felix; and the one actor who gives Duvall a run for his moneya stubborn mule ( literally ) who has shared Felix's self-imposed hibernation on his backwoods land. As the gigantic party approaches complications arise, lives are transformed, old hurts trotted out and the mystery deepens.
At one point Felix comments about his vast land holdings, "You leave things alone, they'll know what to do"perfectly stating the theme of the film, the trust that the director places in his cast and perhaps more importantly, his audience. Like Felix and that stubborn mule, Get Low moves at its own measured, confident pace, intensifying your responses to it as it progresses ( like falling in love ) . It's one of those rare film experiences that both everyday moviegoers and longtime film critics like myself hope for each time the lights go down. It reminded me of the essential joy and transformative power that many great movies share ( and that almost always take me by surprise ) , and I was delighted and moved from beginning to end by this aptly self-described "true tall tale."
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