Before Stonewall Review

Before Stonewall is an award-winning documentary in which gay men and women describe their lives in the decades leading up to the 1969 Stonewall riots and the founding of the gay rights movement. Review of the UK DVD from Peccadillo Pictures by Gary Couzens.

On 27 June 1969 in New York City, the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a well-known gay bar. However this time, the gay community retaliated and riots broke out for three nights. The Stonewall Riots are often taken to mark the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.

Narrated by Rita Mae Brown, Before Stonewall is an oral history of gay life before that date, beginning in the 1920s. The interview subjects are gay men and lesbians from all backgrounds. With one exception (who is silhouetted), the interviewees all speak openly about their experiences at times when homosexuality was illegal, and people could only express their sexuality covertly. For the most part they are ordinary everyday people, which is the film’s point. A few famous people, such as the late Allen Ginsberg, say their piece: the publication of his long poem Howl was a landmark in what could be expressed in literature. Another thread is the increase in gay themes in fiction, ranging from trashy and sexy potboilers to serious works of literature.

Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg (the latter credited as “co-director”) keep the documentary moving fast, interspersing the interviews with clips from archive sources and some movies. Most of the latter aren’t identified, but I spotted an extract from the pioneering German silent from 1919 Anders als die Andern. There’s also a jawdropping clip from the 1932 film Call Her Savage, wherein pre-Code Hollywood takes us into its first on-screen gay bar. However, with the enforcement of the Code, homosexuality became a banned subject, emerging only in underground films like Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks. Look out for the amazingly camp drag number “Hostesses of the Canteen” from 1943’s This is the Army.

Time and again the message is that these men and women had to find happiness and love where they could; few of them could be open about their sexuality. At other times, such as during World War II, homosexuals in the armed forces were unofficially tolerated. One interviewee relates that when General Eisenhower spoke of removing lesbians from the military, he was told that he would be getting rid of a significant number of the most decorated women in the forces. So a blind eye was turned. However, when the war ended, women had to give up their jobs in favour of their menfolk, and a period of considerable conformity began. However, gay communities formed in cities like New York and San Francisco, and were strengthened by emerging Civil Rights movement, although in the face of much official opposition. This finally came to head that June night in New York in 1969.

Before Stonewall tells a fascinating and sometimes moving story. It does a valuable service in preserving the stories of these men and women (some of whom, Ginsberg included, are no doubt dead now). One can only respect what they did and went through, and learn the lessons of their lives.


Before Stonewall is released on DVD by Peccadillo Pictures, on a dual-layered disc encoded for all regions. Given that this is a documentary, Peccadillo have exempted this DVD from classification. The film received a 15 certificate on its UK cinema release and again on video in 1993. I suspect it would be likely to receive a 12 now. The disc begins with a trailer for Alove to Hide.

Shot and originally distributed on 16mm, Before Stonewall is transferred to DVD in its correct 4:3 ratio. Much of the footage is very grainy and quite soft in places, and the archive materials vary considerably in quality. However, this no-frills look is much as I remember from when I saw this film shortly after its release.

The soundtrack is the original mono, and is clear and well-balanced. Unfortunately there are no subtitles anywhere, apart from fixed English ones in the trailers for foreign-language films.

The main extra is a panel discussion (50:31) following a twenty-fifth anniversary screening of Before Stonewall at the BFI Southbank in London. Moderated by director Richard Kwietniowski, the panel comprises Greta Schiller, former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, filmmaker Monika Treut, playwright and activist Alan Wakeman and writer, DJ and broadcaster (and former Big Brother housemate) Richard Newman. Given that apart from Schiller and Treut, all the panellists are British-resident. Wakeman, in his seventies, talks of coming out to his parents in the early Fifties – which must have taken considerable courage – and he describes his involvement in the early days of the Gay Liberation Front. If British gays had their Stonewall, it was Mary Whitehouse’s 1977 blasphemy trial against Gay News. Although the trial and conviction destroyed the magazine’s editor, Denis Lemon (who died two years later), Wakeman relates that it acted as a spur to the gay community. When the annual Gay Pride march attracted only about a thousand people, after the trial this number had increased sevenfold. Schiller acknowledges that, while she was careful to give roughly equal time to both gay men and lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people are not represented at all, something she would do differently now. This item is presented in 16:9 anamorphic.

The extras continue with the full-length interviews with Allen Ginsberg (8:20) and Audre Lorde and Yvonne Flowers (4:25). Another short piece is “The Black Cat Cafe” (4:18), in which former regulars reconvene to discuss this important cultural centre in San Francisco. In all cases, the picture quality is rough, very soft with scratches and spots galore, and the soundtrack could be clearer. The extras conclude with another Greta Schiller short documentary, “Tiny and Ruby Hell Divin’ Women” (27:48), a portrait of jazz trumpeter Ernestine “Tiny” Davis and her lifelong companion Renei “Ruby” Phelan. All of these are presented in 4:3.

Also included on the DVDs are twelve trailers for other Peccadillo releases, accessible via two pages of thumbnails: Lost and Delirious, A Love to Hide, Greek Pete, Four Minutes, “Dream Boy”, “The Last of the Crazy People, Avril, XXY, Finn’s Girl, Boys on Film 1, You Belong to Me and 4:30.


Updated: Jul 17, 2009

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