It is sometimes necessary to explain what Stonewall was. In 1960s New York, it was illegal to be homosexual, and gays and lesbian bars were generally mob controlled venues that made pay offs to the police in order to stay open. Located in the gay enclave of Greenwich Village, Stonewall was a seedy bar where watered-down drinks were the norm and the owners didn't much care if you liked it or not: you took it or left it. From time to time the police came around; most of the time they were looking for a pay off, but sometimes they had instructions to crack down on vice. And that is what happened on 27 June 1969, with police officers arresting bar patrons. But on this occasion tempers flared. The bar patrons had had enough and they fought back. The battle spilled into the street, the police took cover inside the bar, and the gays and lesbians tried to burn it down with the police inside. The Stonewall Riots continued on and off for several days, shutting down a big chunk of New York in the process. Today the riots are seen as the turning point in the struggle for gay and lesbian equality.
Well, maybe. The trouble with people who live in New York and Los Angeles and other major urban areas is that they usually discount everybody else, and the stories presented by BEFORE STONEWALL are very much those of gays and lesbians living in major urban areas and struggling against the odds to reach some sort of happy ending. (The only arrest footage in the film shows the drag queens waving happily for the camera.) The film doesn't have much to say about the really bad things that happened, the murders and the deaths, the forced shocked treatments, those who lived in terror in small town hells from one end of the country to another. What emerges is a highly sanitized portrait of the American 20th Century gay and lesbian movement that seems calculated to please liberal heterosexuals instead of inform about the triumphs and failures of the pre-1960s movement. As for Stonewall being a turning point, no doubt it was--in New York. Truth is, it didn't actually receive much coverage at the time. I'd say the national turning point came a decade later when Anita Bryant discovered gays and lesbians had enough leverage to have her fired as spokeswoman for Florida orange juice and when Harvey Milk showed that gays and lesbians could actually be elected to public office.
That said, BEFORE STONEWALL is a nice little feel-good documentary with the occasional glimpse of an interesting interview, such as Harry Hay, who was both adored and reviled (typically of this film, you don't get any of the latter), Martin Duberman (who starts to talk about how he sought a "cure" but never really goes anywhere with the story), and a reunion of those who frequented a bar called The Black Cat (and they, at least, are genuinely fun.) When all is said and done, BEFORE STONEWALL is upbeat, peppy, and tries to make you feel that the bad old days probably weren't quite so bad after all. Recommended, but keep your salt shaker hander, because you'll need to watch it with more than few grains of salt.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer