Stonewall history gets gentrified
By Armond White
Stonewall Uprising confronts our nonchalant present-day sexual freedoms with the history of struggle that peaked in the 1969 Stonewall riots. Its title asserts uprising (not “riot”) to convey the oppression that gay people had to violently oppose in order to claim their humanity and citizenship. This politically correct correction is subject to the clichés and conventions of all PBS American Experience documentaries (that means droning music, campy archival PSAs and pandering buzzword references to “waterboarding” and “nation of laws” conservatism). Worse, Stonewall Uprising commits an unfortunate revisionism: Every person interviewed in the doc refocuses that legendary civil disobedience at the Stonewall Inn as a homogeneously white, mostly male memory. Stonewall Uprising’s history is gentrified history.
It is a cultural tragedy that film critics, curators and even historians like the makers of Stonewall Uprising, have neglected the 1995 drama Stonewall. As directed by the late Nigel Finch and written by Rikki Beadle-Blair, Stonewall was derived from historian Martin Duberman’s authoritative account, which detailed the unpopular fact that the uprising was largely sparked by black and Latino drag queens. But when a white, straight-appearing survivor tells Stonewall Uprising’s directors, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, “The police ran from us, the lowliest of the low, and it was fantastic,” the white talking head becomes a form of cultural appropriation—history usurped by the winners.
Davis and Heilbroner spend more time setting the un-P.C. scene of pre-Stonewall shame, bigotry and repression than they do defining the political dynamics of the era’s agitated gay community. And their summary too-briefly describes the origin of the gay liberation march, now the annual gay pride parade. Some personal testimonies are insightful (playwright Doric Wilson saying, “People thought we were these homosexual monsters, but oddly enough, we were so innocent and oddly enough so American,” and former NYPD Inspector Seymour Pine saying, “You know they broke the law, but what kind of law was that?”), yet they create a segregated impression of what was a non-segregated event.
Opening with the specious quote, “Gay bars were to gay people what churches were to blacks in the South,” Davis and Heilbroner prove tactless and naïve about the legacy of oppression. They forget their own premise that the uprising was indeed a civil rights movement. Thankfully, music video director Joseph Kahn corrects Davis and Heilbroner’s blundering in his relevant new Kylie Minogue video “All The Lovers.”
Kahn fantasizes a street scene—what in the ’60s was called a “happening”—where Kylie’s diva entreaty rounds up multicultural, ambisexual legions to join her individual ecstasy. It’s not a riot, not an orgy, it’s an uprising as the swaying lovers amass and their joy takes them literally higher and higher.
I was uncertain about the verity of the video’s exultant open-arms sexuality until Davis and Heilbroner’s error made me see that Kahn had shrewdly/ingeniously realized the uprising as Finch, Blair and Duberman understood it. Kahn’s floating marshmallows, balloons and white stallions do not make up for the inequities of gay socialization; rather, they anthropomorphize Kahn and Kylie’s idea of purity. Better than the gay exploitation of Sex and the City 2, Kahn’s video transforms those urban spaces—“All the dirty, despicable places” as a Stonewall Uprising witness recalls—where gays once were marginalized, pushed to express their sexual needs in the squalid Meatpacking district (now cleaned-up) or the Stonewall Inn itself (which one witness called “a toilet, but it was a temporary refuge from the street”).
Kahn’s gleaming fantasy of paradisiacal urban cleanliness is a creative act that idealizes an historical fact. Like Spencer Tunick, who photographs mass public undressings, Kahn and Kylie emcee a multiracial party; as critic John Demetry points out, restricting participants to the young, pretty, physically fit is part of their idealization. Importantly, Kahn and Kylie serenade their partiers by the Stonewall-era term “lovers” (out-moded by today’s “partner”). Stonewall Uprising is a whitewash; this is a resurrection of affection. Rainbow Pride expressed as Kylie’s bliss.
Directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner
At Film Forum June 16-29
Runtime: 82 min.