The path of the queer community has never been walked in a straight line. The seminal 1984 documentary Before Stonewall charts the history of the gay and lesbian movement in the United States from the Twenties to Stonewall in 1969, making for an invaluable primer into our own collective backstory. Restored and re-released in selected US cinemas in time for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, it is a timely reminder of the highs and lows of queer life in the twentieth century.
As a documentary of record, Before Stonewall is a broad and informative piece of film-making, collecting a range of first hand experiences and commemorating them. From the secretive, but furtive Twenties, through two World Wars and the social upheaval they brought, we see the connective tissue leading from one global moment to the next and how, little by little, cycle by cycle, queer communities formed, rose and fought back. It also serves as a reminder that Stonewall was the culmination of decades of change. It was the start of an era, and the end of one as well.
With interviews from elders across the decades and a wealth of archival footage, we see LGBTQ+ life grow in fits and starts, as more liberal decades give way to wars and conservatism and back again. Harsh economic times and conflicts break down social barriers, and with each leap forward, elements of society would push back.
Historical testimony comes from a wide range of voices including dancer Harry Otis (born in 1896), poet Allen Ginsberg, lesbian publisher Barbara Grier, journalist and archivist Jim Kepner, activists Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny, Dorothy “Smilie” Hillaire, performers Ivy Bottini, Jose Sarria and so many more, with narration by author Rita Mae Brown. Hearing their first hand recollections of living through times of repression but also of change and discovery and joy, are as funny and heart-warming as they are at times sobering.
Possibly a little dry at times, Before Stonewall succeeds in drawing a line of continuity through the queer twentieth century and gives much needed historical context to the decades that come after it. This restored print not only preserves these moments for posterity’s sake, but also revives them as a timely lesson for today’s community. As President Obama is fond of quoting; “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”, but Before Stonewall shows us that for LGBTQ+ people the arc is often a bumpy one and only bends through the hard work of us all.
USA theatrical release:
By Chad Armstrong