- Stonewall, Silver Screen: Cinematic Representation and the Queer Past
Consistently central to the personal, cultural, and political practices of gay and lesbian subjects, representations of the past have helped forge connections to prior struggles, remarked continuities as well as changes in social conditions, and enabled significant arguments about the meanings of queer identities. Although these productive engagements with history have utilized a variety of textual forms, film and video have been particularly important media for lesbian and gay conversations on the past. In addition to such relatively conventional documentaries as Peter Adair’s Word Is Out (1977), Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), Greta Schiller’s Before Stonewall (1986), Paris Poirier’s Last Call at Maud’s (1993), and Arthur Dong’s Coming Out Under Fire (1994), a number of recent films such as Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989), Pratibha Parmar’s Memory Pictures (1989), Aerlyn Weissman and Lynne Fernie’s Forbidden Love (1992), and Barbara Hammer’s Nitrate Kisses (1992) have engaged the past in ways that disrupt the constraints on representability imposed by dominant historical, biographical, and documentary conventions. 1 The late Nigel Finch’s film Stonewall, a [End Page 491] fictionalization loosely based on Martin Duberman’s book of the same name, moves gay and lesbian filmic histories in yet another direction by offering the first dramatic representation of the queer past in cinema. 2
Indeed, the Stonewall riots readily lend themselves to dramatic representation, for a large measure of their continued significance derives from their twin promises of a better world and the reconciliation of queer differences that reiterate the narrative structure of a comic emplotment. 3 Even Duberman’s empirically grounded historical account, as the dust jacket of the cloth first edition proclaims, “moves like a fiction toward a volatile climax,” “[p]acks the dramatic wallop of a fast-paced novel,” and is “structured with drama and suspense.” More presciently still, the first paperback edition announces that “Duberman’s history lesson is like a script to some extraordinary movie.” 4
What had begun as a routine police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village during the early morning of June 28, 1969, quickly changed course to mark a strong rejection of complacent attitudes toward police-state intervention into queer public space. After being thrown out of the bar, many of the patrons gathered outside rather than leave the area to avoid further involvement in the “crime.” In the tension-filled atmosphere on the street, something ignited the crowd’s anger—perhaps the arrest of a lesbian or the abusive treatment of a drag queen or the cops’ homophobia in general or some combination of these and other factors. The now much-larger crowd fought back with a surprising show of resistance, including trapping the offending officers in the bar and attempting to set it on fire, and battled the police, soon reinforced by riot control cops, for several hours. The following evening a few hundred people gathered in front of the boarded-up bar, and again the police arrived, clearing the streets by 3:30 Sunday morning. With a continued police presence, the area remained relatively calm for the next several days, although protests flared up again on Wednesday in what would be the last, but not the end, of the Stonewall riots. Commemorated on an annual basis since 1970, Stonewall has been the subject of persistent resignification and reconstruction of the “event” of the riots into a discourse-defined “fact” by locating it in larger webs of socially mediated individual and collective meaning, hence the urgency Duberman felt “to tell the actual story of the upheaval . . . completely” (xv). 5
Of the many political crises facing gay men and lesbians in New York State in the late 1960s, one of the most pressing was the very “crime” that (ostensibly) provoked the raid on the Stonewall. As Dick Leitsch, executive [End Page 492] director of the New York Mattachine Society at the time of the riots, explained in a letter to the Village Voice, although the Stonewall was operating...