HBO Documentary Timely Reminder of History of Gay Rights
“I don’t know what was different about the way I was raised or the way I reacted,” Vito Russo says in HBO’s excellent 90 minute documentary about his life, “but I never once, not for a second, believed that it was wrong to be gay, that it was a sin, that homosexuality was evil.” Russo, born in 1946, died of AIDS in 1990. He became an activist for gay rights following the June 27, 1969 police raid on a Greenwich Village gay bar famously named the Stonewall–an event which is credited with giving birth to a new era in the Gay Rights Movement. Russo, a 23-year-old film student at the time, was among the crowd at the Stonewall and would go on to become one of the most outspoken and inspiring activists in the LGBT community’s fight for equal rights. Specifically, he was a key player in three different organizations during their formative years: GAA (Gay Activists Alliance), GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power). Russo was also a prolific writer who, thanks to a life-long love of movies, specialized in celebrity interviews. Of note, he interviewed Lilly Tomlin for “The Advocate” when she “came out.” His most famous book “The Celluloid Closet” (published in 1981) presents an exhaustive survey of gays and lesbians on film, starting in the early days of cinema, through the days of the “Code” which tried to clean up the movies, and right on up to films like Midnight Cowboy. To create the book, Russo analyzed hundreds of movies in their original reels (without the benefit of digital technology, mind you!) and created a “road show” which he took to gay film festivals and college campuses all over the world. As part of the show, Russo would give informative lectures combined with fabulous clips showing openly gay scenes from pre-Code movies and sly references to gay relationships in film afterwards. In the documentary we get to see quite of few of his clips—made to order for all us Serious Movie Lovers! Russo continued writing, lecturing, speaking out and acting up until just months before his death and the interviews with his colleagues, family and friends are very moving. All in all, a good refresher as we read today’s headlines. Catch the film on HBO or HBOgo–it’s worth the effort.