Change has to be fought for

December 5, 1995

Directed by Nigel Finch
Based on the book Stonewall by Martin Duberman
Reviewed by Jon Strauss
Stonewall left me with a feeling that something was lacking. Yet this factionalised account of the lives of a half-dozen gay New Yorkers in the weeks leading up to and including the warm June evening of the 1969 Stonewall riots — the starting point of the gay liberation movement — also achieves quite a lot. Why this contradiction? Although by the standards of contemporary cinema, the film's sex scenes are generally coy, its costuming (the film devotes itself particularly to the Greenwich Village drag queens, the riot's "instigators") not flamboyant and its action sequence — the riot itself — unspectacular, the cast and crew have put together a well-made and well-acted piece that deserves commercial success. If so, it certainly will make a part of the history of social struggles more accessible. Much of movie's more serious aspects relate to character's personal relationships. Increasingly politically angry drag queen La Miranda (Guillermo Diaz), develops a tense love affair with recently arrived mid-Western macho Matty Dean (Frederick Weller), who has been attracted to New York by the writings of activist Ethan (Brendan Corbalis). More interesting still is the relationship of Bostonia (Duane Boutte) and Skinny Vinnie (Bruce MacVittie), the Stonewall Bar operator, who twists and turns in the face of the need to come out. (This portrayal of the Mafia ownership of the bar has led to some criticism.) The viciousness of police repression of the drag queens is also vividly portrayed. But other legal restrictions are used as a source of humour: only the gay Stonewall Bar will refuse drinks, in front of a Village Voice journalist, to gay political activists who openly declare their homosexuality before ordering. Stonewall only tells one story — the brief interviews that start and close the film reveal that there are many more to tell. But it is also true that there is a definite history of Stonewall (as there is of any social struggle), that can be variously analysed, but must be given serious consideration by political activists if its lessons are to be drawn out. Maybe film is a difficult medium for such an effort, but, perhaps influenced by postmodernism, the possibility of this is denied. Yet director Nigel Finch, who commented on the significance of Stonewall in an interview with Attitude magazine, suggested an alternative approach: "[Stonewall's] relevance in Britain is that of any event that has changed history ... it has become a symbol of change and resistance, a reminder you have to fight for change, it's not given voluntarily".

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