On a hot summer night in 1969, the New York Police Department embarked on a somewhat standard raid of the Greenwich Village gay bar the Stonewall Inn. What happened next changed history: Instead of filing into the paddy wagons in silent shame, the Stonewall patrons resisted, instigating two nights of protests that effectively gave birth to the modern gay-rights movement.
The well-documented Stonewall saga has been recounted in everything from Martin Duberman's classic book Stonewall to the 1985 documentary Before Stonewall to the 1995 docudrama Stonewall. What Stonewall Uprising documentarians Kate Davis and David Heilbroner bring to the table is a big, glossy, pedantically straightforward summation of the gay-rights movement's "Rosa Parks moment," recounted by people who were there and buffeted by supporting materials that strive to make the realities of pre-Stonewall gay life tangible to inhabitants of a post-Ellen world.
For those familiar with the Stonewall story or any of its earlier tellings, Stonewall Uprising will carry a whiff of Stonewall for Dummies™. But the film soon earns its place on-screen with its powerful reconstruction of gay life in the late '60s—a time when "two out of three Americans view[ed] homosexuals with disgust and fear" (as Mike Wallace reports in 1967's CBS Reports episode "The Homosexuals") and when those with same-sex attractions were perpetually threatened with social ruination (names and addresses of "sexual deviants" were regularly printed in newspapers), torturous medical experimentation (from urge-deterrent drugs to frontal lobotomies), and eternal damnation (as ever). For queers, things were tough all over, and New York was no exception, with the city using a slew of arcane ordinances to keep homosexuals cowed and out of sight. (One "admitted homosexual" on the premises qualified a bar as disorderly, and a 19th-century law against "masquerade" made any and all drag/crossdressing a prosecutable offense.)
And so it came to pass that the trod-on queers of Greenwich Village finally reached the point where they would not take it anymore, unleashing a rage captured here in all its multifaceted ramshackleness (the first night of the protest was about making a campy racket and punking the cops; the second night was about Fighting Back). Such nuance is deserted in the film's final stretch, when the Meaning of Stonewall—"In every Gay Pride parade every year, Stonewall lives"—is laid out with the simplistic certainty of the best propaganda (which doesn't mean it's not true). Such pedantry makes Stonewall Uprising feel more like a teaching tool than it should—but it'll make a great teaching tool.