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Stonewall Uprising -- Film Review

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For an event of such seismic social importance in the modern era, the 1969 Stonewall riots went shockingly undocumented. Almost no archival footage exists, which gives Kate Davis and David Heilbroner's documentary feature "Stonewall Uprising" the frustrating air of an oral history lesson. But it's a vitally important one nonetheless.

The basic facts are well known: The Stonewall, a seedy, Mafia-owned gay bar in the heart of Greenwich Village, was raided by police June 28, 1969. Instead of surrendering quietly, its patrons fought back, leading to three days of violent encounters between surprised police officers and the suddenly militant gays who had simply had enough. It was, as one participant describes it here, their "Rosa Parks moment."

The film methodically provides historical context for the events, supplying ample evidence of the discrimination against gays and lesbians at the time. Mike Wallace probably will be none too happy about an excerpt from a 1966 "CBS Reports" news special in which he declares that "the average homosexual is promiscuous and not interested in, nor capable of, a lasting relationship."

There also are accounts of electro-shock aversion therapy administered to homosexuals, as well as a drug given at a California mental hospital that is described as "chemical waterboarding."

But the heart of the film is the accounts of the riots, with commentary by such figures as former Village Voice journalists Howard Smith and Lucian Truscott IV (the paper's offices were virtually next door at the time), several of the people who participated in the uprising, commentators including former New York Mayor Ed Koch and playwright Doric Wilson and even the former NYPD inspector who led the raid. The cop, Seymour Pine, clearly was shocked by the violent resistance they encountered, describing the proceedings as a "real war."

There have been several significant films documenting the struggle for gay civil rights, including "Before Stonewall" and "After Stonewall." "Stonewall Uprising" skillfully fills the gap in between.

Opened: Wednesday, June 16 (First Run)
Production: PBS American Experience
Directors-producers: Kate Davis, David Heilbroner
Screenwriter: David Heilbroner
Director of photography: Buddy Squires
Editor: Kate Davis
Music: Gary Lioneli
No rating, 82 minutes