“Before Stonewall” Is a Stirring Time Capsule of Early Queer Life

Newly restored and as inspiring as ever, the 1984 Emmy Award–winning documentary Before Stonewall is an expansive collective portrait of LGBTQ life in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century. In it, director Greta Schiller (Paris Was a Woman, The Man Who Drove With Mandela) and her co-director, Robert Rosenberg, interview dozens of eloquent gay men and lesbians who share what the world was like in their younger days, including important movement leaders like Harry Hay, who founded the first U.S. gay organization, the Mattachine Society, in 1950; activists Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny, who spearheaded pickets at the White House in 1965; African American lesbian poet and visionary Audre Lorde; and LGBTQ historian Martin Duberman.

Courtesy of Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde (right) and a friend in New York City circa the 1950s.

Their tales and memories are brought to life by vintage music and a trove of archival footage—one of the film’s Emmys was for Andrea Weiss’ wonderful work as an archival researcher. We see old home movies and LGBTQ portrayals in early films, including amazing clips from the first gay feature, 1919’s Different From the Others, and the 1968 lesbian drama The Killing of Sister George. Equally wonderful is the soundtrack of popular records such as Ma Rainey’s explicitly queer “Prove It on Me Blues” (“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.”)

Amidst the film’s narration by Rita Mae Brown (author of the seminal lesbian novel Rubyfruit Jungle), we also hear from dozens of non-famous queer folk like the unassuming Donna Smith, a retired bookkeeper who recalls getting arrested for being a lesbian and how she was sent to a psych ward, and African American lesbian Mabel Hampton, a former domestic worker and dancer who talks about being “in the life” and how she went out with many, many married women during World War II (she proclaims, rather convincingly, that “one half of the world is queer”).

Three men on the beach circa the 1960s.

First Run Features

Three men on the beach circa the 1960s.

The film also details how in the aftermath of the war gay men and lesbians flocked to urban centers like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City, sparking the beginning of what would become the LGBTQ community over time. Its best storyteller—who comes equipped with the most riveting account of all—is the fabulous lesbian printer Johnnie Phelps, who describes her Women’s Army Corps battalion during World War II as being 97 percent lesbian. Her tale of how she shut down General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s homophobia in an in-person one-on-one is absolutely priceless.

Three Before Stonewall producers in 1985: L-R Director Greta Schiller, executive producer John Scagliotti, and co-director Robert Rosenberg.

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Three Before Stonewall producers in 1985, L-R: director Greta Schiller, executive producer John Scagliotti, and co-director Robert Rosenberg.

As Before Stonewall progresses through the century, we witness pioneering psychiatrist Dr. Evelyn Hooker explain how the Kinsey Report changed the lives of gay men and lesbians in America when people realized they were not alone; Kinsey revealed that roughly 20 million gay men and lesbians were living in the country. Coinciding with this was the McCarthy era. “The country slipped into the dark ages,” says one interviewee, while former State Department staffer Paul H. Clarke recalls the Lavender Scare of the 1950s and the ousting of gay men from the State Department. We learn of the Mattachine Society and of the first lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, founded by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in 1955.

In addition to the powerful and devastating footage of drag queens being marched out to paddy wagons by the police during a 1960s gay bar raid, the filmmakers bring us to the reunion of the Black Cat Cafe, one of the most important gay bars in San Francisco in the 1950s and early ’60s. As the legendary Latinx drag performer and activist José Sarria busts into “God Save Us Nelly Queens,” you won’t find a dry eye in the house.

A man in drag circa the 1950s.

First Run Features

A man in drag circa the 1950s.

Before Stonewall then beautifully segues to a section conveying how the gay rights movement was influenced and informed by the civil rights movement, with Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop owner Craig Rodwell reflecting on how the Stonewall Riots resonated across the country. In the immediate aftermath of Stonewall, Rodwell was one of the initiators of New York City’s annual Christopher Street Liberation Day parade commemorating the uprising—in other words, he was one of the creators of what we know today as LGBTQ Pride Day.

Barbara Gittings and protesters in Philadelphia circa the 1960s.

First Run Features

Barbara Gittings and protesters in Philadelphia circa the 1960s.

A few of the film’s other notable interviewees include Harlem Renaissance writer and painter Richard Bruce Nugent, Mattachine co-founder Chuck Rowland, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg; lesbian publisher Barbara Grier, and lesbian author Ann Bannon—plus, at least a dozen other everyday people whose candid and poignant tales make Before Stonewall required viewing for anyone who cares about our long-running, indefatigable fight for equality.

Before Stonewall opens in New York City on June 21 and in Los Angeles on June 28, with other cities to follow.

Jenni Olson is one of the world’s leading experts on LGBT cinema history and a co-founder of PlanetOut.com. Her latest film project is “The Royal Road.”

@JenniOlsonSF


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