We all have a moment when we have to make "the decision." Do we fight for who we are or do we assimilate into an ambiguous communal consciousness and surrender our unique voice?
For Vito Russo, that moment was on June 27, 1969.
If you are a member of the LGBT community in America and you don't know that date, then you haven't been paying attention.
It was on June 27, 1969 that a police raid on a Greenwich Village gay bar took a surprising turn when the bar patrons decided they'd had enough and it was time to fight back.
So, they fought. As a riot erupted outside the Stonewall Inn, a new era in the Gay Rights movement was born and Vito Russo was there for the start of it all. A 23-year-old film student, Russo would spend the next 20 years before his death from AIDS in 1990 at the forefront of the gay rights movement and would become one of the movement's most outspoken and inspiring activists.
In addition to being centrally involved with ACT Up and the fight against AIDS, Vito was a prolific writer with "The Celluloid Closet" being perhaps his most famous work. The book explored the ways in which gays and lesbians were portrayed on film, most notably tying the frequently negative and controversial portrays into society's festering and dominating homophobia.
Using period footage and film clips that beautifully capture the era, director Jeffrey Schwarz has crafted a deeply moving and remarkably educational cinematic portrait about a man that many may not know by name but whose actions contribute to reverberate far beyond the LGBT community.
A production from HBO Documentary Films, Vito has finally gotten the home video deal it so richly deserves from those fine folks at First Run Features. The film also comes with a surprising wealth of DVD extras with most centered around Russo's interviews of key LGBT community figures.
The film was, as one might expect, wildly popular on the film fest circuit and was the opening night film at San Francisco's Frameline along with screenings at New York Film Festival, Outfest Los Angeles and others. Russo's impact is astounding, even for a critic like myself who "knew his name" and his central place in gay rights. Russo was an early member of the Gay Activist Alliance and co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the latter an organization that continues to recognize him by presenting an annual award in his name.
Schwarz presents all of this incredibly well, both entertaining and informing while also inspiring. The film captures the infancy and vibrancy of a growing movement, a movement that is now front and center in American society as perceptions change and rights once thought unimaginable are becoming an increasing reality. Interestingly, the film was executive produced by Bryan Singer for HBO and, as usual, the HBO name has helped to ensure production quality is stellar.
For more information on the film, check out the First Run Features website via the link listed in the credits.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic