In 2008, I first saw Kent Mackenzie’s film The Exiles (1961). It is a neorealist film that showcases a true depiction of American Indians living in Los Angeles at a time when nothing was documented and when Hollywood cinema was generating stereotypes of Natives in Western films. I loved The Exiles because it gave a realistic portrayal of American Indians going through the U.S. Indian Relocation Program. It also provided a multi-dimensional representation of the characters and a glimpse into the gentrification changes to what is now called the Historical Core of Downtown Los Angeles.
Mackenzie, a film student working on a project called Bunker Hill, met quite a few American Indians in that neighborhood and was familiar with the Indian Relocation Act of 1956. Knowing that he wanted to shed light on Native American issues, Mackenzie made the conscious decision to give voice to the American Indians he encountered in Los Angeles. The urban Indian relocation program was set up to lure young adults who were jobless after completing their education. Most of these young Indians received vocational training, rather than an academic education, at Indian boarding schools across the United States, which followed Richard Henry Pratt’s philosophy “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”
The young American Indians were further enticed by offers of paid moving expenses and more vocational training for those willing to move off the reservations to certain government-designated cities such as Los Angeles. The flyers were appealing, promising a path to what many believed was an American dream. Most who migrated into cities were young twenty-something single Indians or young married couples. My parents, like many Indian families, migrated to a city through the program. Yet many people today do not know about the migration of American Indians to metropolitan cities, nor the U.S. policies of assimilation through programs that enticed young Natives to leave their reservation homelands, in hopes they would never return.
The Exiles film inspired me to bring to light that we Indian people have a history in L.A. and to address U.S. policies of assimilation of American Indians. Clearly, people from many cultures have come to Los Angeles, such as Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, and African Americans. But while their stories have been told and acknowledged, the American Indian migration to cities has not been discussed on a larger scale. I want our history to be remembered and understood. I want to pay homage to that first generation of relocated Indians of the 1950s and 1960s.
As for the conception of Legacy of Exiled NDNZ, I specifically asked tribal members living in Los Angeles whom I knew personally, and who bore a resemblance to the characters in The Exiles to be a part of my project. I also reached out to a few UCLA students and, to my surprise, they agreed to do it. One of the students was a second-generation relocated Indian, whose mother I had known for a while in Los Angeles. When I asked the mother if her daughter would like to be involved in my project I was surprised to learn that she would love to participate. So, now I had seven young adults from various tribal communities, most of whom didn’t know each other. I had a shoestring budget, but I was optimistic.
The initial concept was just going to be a photography project. I decided to use black-and-white photography to showcase the nostalgic history of American Indians that is rarely viewed. I wanted to represent a counter-image to the damaging and dated representation of the American Indian in the public psyche as well as to capture inhabited history and culture from the past to the future. I wanted my images to evoke both an historical and contemporary sensibility, showing the reality of the vibrant, passionate, smiling Indians living in an urban world of yesteryear and today.
I also wanted to get behind-the-scenes footage of what I was capturing, so I hired a video-photographer. I generated questions for my young participants, asking what they knew about the U.S. Indian Relocation program, what brought them to Los Angeles, and about their connection to their respective tribal reservations. I wanted viewers to get a glimpse into who they were as young American Indians in 2013.
We filmed for two days. The first day we shot at historical places where The Exiles was filmed: Main Street, Grand Central Market, and Union Station. I also filmed in the alley that has been coined “Indian Alley,” off of Main Street. My young participants were not familiar with the area. Stephen Ziegler the caretaker who currently lives in the building that formerly housed United American Indian Involvement (UAII), shared with them the history of the location while we took some amazing photos. This site was important to me because it also represents a trail of where American Indians gathered in the early 1970s.
After funding from the Indian Relocation program ran out, many Indians ended up homeless. The United American Indian Involvement Center opened in 1973 to help Indians living with addiction on the street. As in earlier times, many were still coming to L.A. in hopes of finding a better life, yet unfortunately winding up addicted to drugs or alcohol and homeless. This is not uncommon when people struggle with poverty and depression in urban environments. UAII became a first stop for many Indians coming to Los Angeles — it was a place where they were able to reconnect with friends, loved ones, and family members.
Bunker Hill in the 1950s and 1960s was a hub for Native Americans to unite during the Relocation era. But by the 1970s and 1980s, 118 Winston Street, where UAII had been headquartered, was now Skid Row. This area — Indian Alley — has had a dark bleak history, but today it is commemorated by artwork created primarily by well-known Native American and non-Native American artists as a form of healing for everyone.
The Native population of Los Angeles has grown from roughly 12,000 in the 1960s to more than 25,000 in the 1970s. Today, more than 175,000 tribal members live in Los Angeles (the highest populated urban Indian community in the United States), many of whom migrated from Montana, South Dakota, New Mexico, and Oklahoma among other communities.
The second day of shooting was set up for recreating images I loved from the 1961 film The Exiles. I contacted Milestone before I started my project and shared my admiration for the film and how the film directly influenced me to generate a photography project. I also told Milestone that some of the young adults had not seen the film, so they provided screeners which I gave to my young participants to view and discuss in personal interviews on our second day of shooting. I initially was planning to showcase only an exhibition of black-and-white photography work reenacting scenes from the film, but after I listening to the interviews and viewing the behind-the-scene video, it grew into a short film project, which I entitled Legacy of Exiled NDNZ. My short film is shot in a neorealist visual aesthetic reminiscent of Mackenzie’s 1961 film. I truly feel it is a continuation of Mackenzie’s work.
Mackenzie didn’t like the Classic Hollywood cinema narratives or the portrayal of Indians in Westerns in the 1960s, and I feel the same way today. Even now, films with American Indian subjects, such as Pocahontas and The Lone Ranger, portray Indians as one-dimensional relics of an historical past.
Hollywood continues to invent Indian figures that no longer exist
— they turn us into ghosts, as if we are all dead.
When Indians are portrayed in current period projects, such in the Adam Sandler film The Ridiculous Six, they are often the targets of harmful mockery that perpetuates hatred and racism. Living in the mecca of Hollywood, I am determined to show that there is a dignified Indian identity and a great diversity in Southern California. For so long, when I have told people I’m Navajo, their first response is, “Oh, you don’t look Indian.” Their views have been shaped by the way non-Native filmmakers, history books, and the education system have all caricatured us.
Knowing this stigma in society, I am determined to change it. Thanks to Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles, I was able to start my path toward changing the way that Indians are seen in mass media. My project, Legacy of Exiled NDNZ, showcases an indigenous aesthetic of real Indians today and gives voice to young tribal members living and thriving in Los Angeles. I call my work “Indigenous Realism.” From Legacy of Exiled NDNZ, my work has expanded. You can see my other projects, photos, and poetry at www.pamelajpeters.com along with my current project #RepresentYourTribalNation, which I am fundraising to complete at https://www.gofundme.com/IndigenousLA .
I am extremely grateful that I was introduced to The Exiles at UCLA. It has had a huge influence on me and in more ways than I am able to explain. I am also grateful to Milestone for the restoration of the film that is now one of my favorite of all time and influenced me to Kickstart the many projects I have been doing here in Los Angeles, California.
The reflections and voices of American Indians have long been excluded from mainstream storytelling. In my work, I employ an indigenous, neorealist aesthetic to examine how Native American relocation history is part of California’s legacy and how the strong ties American Indians proudly maintain to their tribal communities and identities can not only exist, but thrive in large urban cities like Los Angeles.
We first “met” Sherman Alexie in 2007 — on the Milestone office answering machine. We had been preparing the press kit for Kent Mackenzie’s Native American film, The Exiles, and our colleague Cindi Rowell had suggested that he might be interested in the project. Dennis googled, found the booking agent for the popular writer, poet, performer, and filmmaker and sent off an email. We were all pretty sure that that our inquiry would fall into a dark bottomless hole.
So imagine our surprise and delight when we checked the messages the next morning and heard Sherman’s voice raving about the film — one he had loved for years! He even enthusiastically described a favorite scene early in the film when Tommy playfully shaves his pal’s sideburns in anticipation of a wild night on the town.
It was the start of a beautiful, albeit long-distance, relationship. Sherman went on to co-present The Exiles with filmmaker Charles Burnett (who turned out to be another one of Sherman’s favorites). We emailed back and forth, from time to time, and strategized about doing a joint film restoration project (which we still hope will happen someday). Meanwhile we continued to read and love Sherman’s great novels, short stories, and poems about being a human being and an Indian (his preferred designation he told us at the time – any use of "American" is an oxymoron).
This June (2017) the not-too-distant Word Bookstore was hosting a book signing with Sherman, so Dennis and I reached out to him in advance by email and them made our way to Jersey City. Meeting him and his wife Diane was a joy. Before going on to speak, Sherman was both excited and very nervous, but also incredibly warm and welcoming. He joked that he was dressed less formally than he usually did on tour, and felt more naked. I replied that seemed appropriate given how revealing the memoir (which I had already read) is.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is Sherman’s struggle to think about, feel, and write about his very challenging, wonderful, and terrible mother. In the book he also writes frankly about his own frightening health problems, which include several brain surgeries (one in 2015), bipolar disease, PTSD, OCD, and as he says, an alphabet of syndromes.
As a writer and a man, Sherman is so, so, so much more than these diagnoses. And his wrenching memoir of how impossibly painful, wonderful, messy, and maddening it can be to love and lose a parent is more than just courageous, it is literally death-defying.
Sherman grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State with two charismatic and hard-drinking parents. After a particularly raucous, drunken house party in the early 1970s, his mother Lillian promised her kids that she would stop drinking. As he writes, “My mother was a liar. She broke many promises over the coming decades. But she kept that greatest of vows. She was sober for the rest of her life. And that’s why I am still alive.”
But living with Lillian was often a test of survival, especially for Sherman, who shared his mother’s intelligence, sharp tongue, and bipolar mood swings. They were, he writes: “roller coasters on parallel tracks.” His memoir is both a love song and an indictment of his glamorous, brilliant, and terrifying parent.
In addition to trying to paint his mercurial mother’s portrait and tell the story of his own traumatic childhood, Sherman is also grieving aloud — and he employs all forms of narrative, including confession, philosophical musings, poetry, ethnography, and reporting on the facts of his mother’s illness, death, and funeral. The book contains 160 chapters; some are 25+ pages long; one is just eight words. Many are funny, all are painful. One is a poem entitled “Genocide.”
Chapter 28: “Eulogize Rhymes with Disguise” is a poem that tells the story of one night that Lillian locked the four-year-old Sherman out of the house for crying for his absent father, who was out on a binge. He writes that he sought shelter and warmth with the family mutts in the doghouse and refused to come in when she called him in “three minutes or three hours later — I don’t know which.” The poem ends:
“…I never stopped
Being afraid of her. I never left
That dark porch. I am still
Sleeping with those dogs.
Yes, I am always cold and curled
Like a question mark
Among those animal bodies.
As I wait for the glorious
Warmth of the rising sun.”
The warmth he awaited — needed, and needs still — was his mother’s difficult and unpredictable love for “the prodigal who yearned and spurned and never returned.”
The dilemma of whether to return home or stay away haunts him. When he was twelve, Sherman asked his parents if he could leave the tribal school to attend a non-Native school in a nearby town. “And my parents, knowing that I was betraying thousands of years of tribal traditions to go live among white people, said, “Yes.” My parents, as wounded and fragile as they were, had the strength and courage to set me free. I think they knew that I would never return, not in body or spirit, but they loved me too much to make me stay.”
In another one-page chapter, “Your Theology or Mine,” Sherman writes that if theists forced him to choose to believe in, “The Word” — he would pick the verb “return.” “Because I am always compelled to return, return, return to my place of birth, to my reservation, to my unfinished childhood home, and ultimately to my mother, my ultimate salmon.”
Sherman’s tribe, the Spokane, long worshipped the beautiful salmon who returned each year to spawn and die. When the Grand Coulee Dam was built, the ancient wild salmon were forever exiled from the upper Columbia and Spokane rivers and the people of the region were, like his parents, left “without salmon, spiritual orphans.”
He writes that “all of us Spokane and Coeur d’Alenes, after the Grand Coulee Dam, have been born into the Clan of Doing Our Best to Re-create and Replicate the Sacred Things that Were Brutally Stolen from Us.” After his mother’s death, he and his brothers and cousins realized none of them even knew the Spokane word for the fish.
“My name is Sherman Alexie and I was born from loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss. And loss.”
The losses he writes about are generational, historical, familial, personal and unbearable. Torture and rape haunted the Native American residential schools, the reservation where Lillian grew up, Sherman’s own elementary school, his own home. No wonder his dad once told Sherman he drank because of “the pain of being Indian” — and went on to drink himself to death at the age of sixty-four. In Chapter 85, “Litmus Test,” Sherman notes that some people ask him why his dad drank so much, “But some strangers, the ones who know the most about pain, hear my father”s tragic story and they ask, “Damn, why didn’t he drink more?”
Lillian Alexie was a quilter (and a singer, a social worker, an addiction counselor, and a basketball fan). And as his wife Diane told him after reading this memoir, Sherman also patched together squares to make a whole.
As quilts go, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is not much of a comforter. It is, perhaps, a garment for grieving. In my tribe, when you are at the Jewish funeral of a close family member, the rabbi pins a piece of black cloth on you, and then rips it, to signify mourning. The Internet informs me that the practice is called kriah, “the ancient practice of tearing clothes as a tangible expression of grief and anger in the face of death.”
Like Sherman, I am a “middle-aged orphan” (in my case, past middle aged) and I wore black ripped ribbons for my mother in 2003 and my father in 2010. Although I was in over 50 when I became an orphan, I was stunned at how disorienting it was to no longer have parents. And walking in the footsteps of Sherman’s grief, I am reminded of how hard and physically painful it was to move forward from the death of Ida Melnitsky Heller — another powerful brilliant, and (often) disappointing mother. I miss her terribly, but fortunately, not every moment, as I did in the first years after her death — years when I wept on the blacktop after school waiting for our son and reached for the phone to call her every day.
This summer, shortly after we were in the audience for his hilarious, heart-breaking, and (yes, I will use the adjective again) death-defying performance/reading/rant at the bookstore in Jersey City, Sherman Alexie suspended his book tour. He explained that he needed “to take a big step back and do most of my grieving in private.” Dennis and I were saddened, but not really surprised. We could see what a terrible toll his public (and naked) mourning was taking.
One anecdote Sherman told that day at Word Bookstore was about how, in a bout of paranoia, he had stocked up on a year’s worth of survival rations. He told the audience that anyone who could recite an Emily Dickinson poem was invited to Seattle for an all-emergency-food feast. While Sherman was signing our books, I recited a poem I know by heart. It is a fitting end to this blog, I think:
Endow the Living — with the Tears —
You squander on the Dead,
And They were Men and Women — now,
Around Your Fireside —
Instead of Passive Creatures,
Denied the Cherishing
Till They — the Cherishing deny —
With Death's Ethereal Scorn —
I look forward to that feast of dehydrated goodies, and even more to Sherman Alexie’s book.
LOS ANGELES (October 23, 2017) – The Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) announces that Dennis Doros, co-owner of Milestone Films, has been elected president of the international association by AMIA members. Doros will be inducted into office at the annual AMIA Conference in New Orleans (Nov. 29 – Dec. 2), when he will begin a two-year term. He succeeds Andrea Kalas, who has led the organization forward for the past two years.
AMIA members have also elected three new directors to the Board of Governors: Casey Davis Kaufman, senior project manager for the WGBH Media Library and Archives and project manager for the American Archive of Public Broadcasting; Andrea Leigh, moving image processing unit head at the Library of Congress National Audio Visual Conservation Center; and Yvonne Ng, senior archivist at WITNESS, an organization that supports people using video to protect human rights. They join board members Jayson Wall of The Walt Disney Studios, consultant and doctoral student Lauren Sorensen, doctoral student/field scholar Melissa Dollman, John Polito of Audio Mechanics, and Teague Schneiter from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
AMIA is the world’s largest professional organization dedicated to the acquisition, description, preservation, restoration, exhibition and use of audiovisual media. The association’s programs help members stay abreast of the latest methods and technologies, ensuring that our cultural treasures are accessible for future generations. The AMIA membership includes archivists, educators, librarians, digital asset managers, technologists, collectors, genealogists, filmmakers, historians, consultants, studio executives, environmentalists, distributors, and broadcasters from around the world — all of whom are actively engaged in the art and science of media preservation and presentation.
Doros comments, “I am deeply honored to have the opportunity to serve AMIA, an organization that has meant so much to me both personally and professionally. The friendships, connections, and camaraderie I have found here have helped me discover, research, and preserve some of the most challenging and rewarding projects of my career. I am inspired on a daily basis by this passionate and supportive international community. I know that working together, we can bring greater diversity, fairness, and outreach to our field while saving a lot of great moving images for generations to come.”
Doros began his career at Kino International in 1984, where he was responsible for restoring Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly and Raoul Walsh’s Sadie Thompson, both starring Gloria Swanson. In 1990, he co-founded Milestone Films with his wife, Amy Heller. Working with film archives and labs around the world, they have restored and distributed a wide range of independent films that include works by Shirley Clarke, Charles Burnett, Margot Benacerraf, Billy Woodberry, Kathleen Collins, Marcel Ophuls, and Kent Mackenzie. Filmmakers Martin Scorsese, Barbara Kopple, Steven Soderbergh, Thelma Schoonmaker, and author Sherman Alexie have worked with Milestone to promote special restoration projects. For the past 12 years, Doros has been a consultant to Turner Classic Movies (TCM).
Doros and Heller have been awarded the National Society of Film Critics’ Film Heritage Award five times and first Special Archival Award; the International Film Seminars’ Leo Award; the NY Film Critics Circle’s Special Award twice; the LA Film Critics’ first Legacy of Cinema Award; and a Film Preservation Honors award from Anthology Film Archives. Doros served three terms on the AMIA Board of Directors, and was the 2016 winner of AMIA’s William S. O’Farrell Volunteer Award in recognition of his contributions to the field.
For more information, visit www.amianet.org.
AMIA is a nonprofit, international association dedicated to the preservation and use of moving image media. As the world’s largest association of professional archivists, AMIA brings together a broad range of experts and institutions in a single forum to address the best ways to preserve our media heritage. For more information, visit www.amianet.org, or follow them on Facebook, Twitter (@AMIAnet), and Instagram (@AMIAarchivists).
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Christine Purse, email@example.com
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As Milestone audiences probably know, when we prepare to restore and/or release a film, we really “do our homework.” Frankly, research is one of the great joys of our work.
[And we do sometimes go to great lengths... our notes on Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers is 66 pages long! You can always access Milestone’s press kits for free here.]
Our home and office (and garage) are brimming with books on such sundry topics as Antarctic exploration, animation history, NYC’s Chelsea Hotel, ballerina Anna Pavlova, the LA Rebellion, Cuban cigar boxes, surrealism in cinema, and twentieth-century Persia. We even have an autobiography written posthumously by Rudolph Valentino!
But every now and then a book we consult for a particular film turns out to be so much more. That was my experience reading George Chauncey’s extraordinary Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. For background, when I picked it up and starting reading, my goal was to learn some context that would help me understand the city that Jason Holliday (born, Aaron Payne) inhabited. Holliday, the solo star of Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, actually lived in New York some time after the book’s focus, and at first I thought I would skip Chauncey’s volume and just focus on post-war histories. Thank goodness I decided to go ahead and reserve all the books in my Bergen County library system that seemed even remotely applicable.
Gay New York is a revelation — or more properly, a series of revelations — about a world whose very existence was previously all but invisible. Chauncey did an extraordinary amount of original, far-reaching, and undoubtedly back-breaking research — exploring existing oral histories, less-referenced periodicals (including black newspapers), police records, sexual histories collected at the Kinsey Institute, cultural references (cartoons, songs, movies, plays), and interviewing survivors of the pre-war city. He uncovered and brilliantly describes a history that was more vibrant, complex, and fascinating than the sad underworld many earlier writers had described.
Right from the opening pages of his introduction, the author tells us that he is going to challenge three widely-accepted truisms of about lives of gay men and women in the years before World War II — the myths of isolation, invisibility, and internalization. Despite very real and powerful societal, legal, institutional, and religious forces allied against them, gay people found ways to form communities, recognize one another (and at times assert their identities publicly), and feel joy and self-confidence. Chauncey quotes one physician who, after interviewing working-class “fags” in the New York City jails in the 1920s, found to his dismay that many were “proud to be degenerates, [and] do not want nor care to be cured.” Another doctor reported that one “loquacious, foul-mouthed and foul-minded ‘fairy’ [was] lost to every sense of shame; believing himself designed by nature to play the very part he is playing in life.”
Chauncey also boldly asks the reader to recognize that the terms and categories we now use to describe sexual and gender orientation have changed over time. Consider this: the term “the closet” did not exist until the 1960s. When gay men talked about “coming out” in earlier years, they were often talking about coming out into the gay world.
You know who else “comes out?” Debutantes. And in 1931 the Baltimore Afro-American reported on a celebration using the headline below:
And check out the terminology the newspaper uses! In the past, the press, police, and other societal arbiters referred to gay people as “neuter gender,” “inverts,” “the third sex,” “fairies,” “faggots,” “pansies,” (and other flowers) “degenerates,” and in one Greenwich Village paper, “short-haired women and long-haired men.”
It is worth noting that these categories described classifications we might not recognize today. “Fairies” were effeminate men who wore unusual and distinctive garb (sometimes women’s clothing, but often eccentric articles like red ties or brightly colored suits) and behaved in a distinctively “feminine” manner, including holding their wrists limply and speaking in higher-pitched voices. These stereotypical behaviors signaled their identity and sexual availability to “queers” and “trade.” Non-effeminate men attracted to other men self-identified as “queer.” “Trade” were men who identified as “normal” (and often had wives or girlfriends) but had sex with other men. There was no concept that would correspond with our idea of “bisexual.” Men were not defined by their choice of sexual partner, and many “normal” men “alternated between male and female sexual partners without believing that their interest in one precluded interest in the other.”
The first home to “notorious degenerate resorts [clubs]” was the Bowery on New York’s Lower East Side. There, at the turn of the century, female prostitutes, “fairies,” working-class immigrants, and even slumming uptowners rubbed elbows... and more. Newspapers loved to bemoan the depravity in clubs like The Slide, on nearby Bleecker Street. One New York Herald headline trumpeted “orgies beyond description” and followed with descriptions of rouged and powdered men who lisped and minced. But interestingly, many of the area saloons and dance halls catered to both “fairies” and “normal” men and attracted members of the working, middle, and upper classes — all of whom mingled socially and sexually.
Starting in the 1890s, the city was also home to huge and elaborate drag balls. By the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of “straight” New Yorkers attended these galas, which were held at such ritzy venues as Madison Square Garden, Webster Hall (seen above) the Astor Hotel, and the Savoy Ballroom. The popularity of the annual Hamilton Lodge Ball in Harlem grew from 600 guests in 1925 to 8,000 in 1937. The festivities there included celebrities like Ethel Waters, crossdressing by men and women, and (according to the New York Age): “all the the panoply of pomp and splendor to give Harlemites who stood in wide-eyed astonishment at this lavish display a treat that shall never be forgotten.”
At the same time, life for gay men could often be dangerous. Effeminate men, who were often seen as less tough and who could not go to the police for help, were targeted and brutalized by gangs. When middle-class men began to self-identify as “queer,” they sometimes chose to live double lives — keeping their sexuality and partners hidden. But having a secret identity made these men vulnerable to societal rejection, blackmail, abuse, and even arrest.
Moral reformers, identifying an increase in “perversion” during the first World War, waged a crusade against homosexuality that included police raids of theaters, bath houses, streets, movie theaters, subway washrooms, restaurants, and saloons resulting in mass arrests and prosecutions. In the 1920s, groups like the Society for the Suppression of Vice also targeted burlesque shows with homosexual acts and Broadway plays featuring gay characters. The NYPD made more arrests for homosexual solicitation — the number convicted rose from 92 men in 1916 to 750 in 1920 — and surveilled known gay meeting places.
I am old (and lucky) enough to remember New York’s great automats and cafeterias and was transported back to them when I read Chauncey’s accounts of the importance of these eateries for gay society. These were public spaces where men could “let their hair down” and meet in relative safety. Some restaurants became noted for their gay clientele — a 1931 guide to NYC told readers that the Child’s cafeteria at Broadway and 48th Street featured “a dash of lavender.”
But meeting places — especially gay clubs, bars, and dance halls — were also subject to raids organized by anti-gay reformers. The police, fire department, state legislature, and liquor authority worked with the courts to close venues and prosecute gay men — often for such degenerate conduct as camping it up or same-sex dancing.
This persecution of gay establishments picked up steam in the 1930s and accelerated in the postwar year, continuing unabated for decades. In fact, when I got the chance to meet Chauncey he told me that he had a copy of the paperwork depriving Jason Holliday of his cabaret license in the 1960s — an arrest record for solicitation in the name of Aaron Payne. It is worth remembering that anti-sodomy laws existed late into the twentieth century. New York’s law was overturned in 1980 and gay sex was illegal in many states until a 2003 US Supreme Court ruling.
Journalists and others love to quote George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But for me one of the most powerful lessons of Gay New York is how often cultures, historians, legislators, and whole societies do forget the past. Or more properly, how often the past is obliterated — both deliberately and inadvertently.
People really do have difficulty with the concept of change. Have you ever noticed how surprised folks are every year on the first cold day of winter? Every year the temperature goes down, and every year it seems to astonish shivering individuals who forgot their coats. Part of our historical amnesia is like that.
We grew up knowing that our elders were vilified and punished for same-sex love, so we believed that this was always the case. It wasn’t so. In fact, as Chauncey writes that “gay life in New York was less tolerated, less visible to outsiders, and more rigidly segregated in the second third of the century than the first, and that the very severity of the postwar reaction has tended to blind us to the relative tolerance of the prewar years."
Our prejudices and assumptions are reinforced by our institutions. Chauncey notes that “at a time when the federal government denied funding to gay-related research,” his own work was supported by private foundations and research centers. Gay New York was published in 1994, a time that may seem halcyon by 2017 standards, but even then he wrote, “any historian writing about homosexuality cannot help being cognizant of the potential professional consequences of working on a subject that continues to be marginalized within the discipline.”
So now I step up on my soapbox, in the the tradition of so many outside voices.
At this moment there are so many forces — including our federal government — working to marginalize, disenfranchise, discredit, and erase our past. And as rights are stripped away, we risk forgetting that we ever had them.
In some states, it is all but impossible for women to obtain a legal abortion — for any reason. Schools, and neighborhoods are more racially segregated than they were a generation ago. The Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act and the present administration is obsessed with preventing nonexistent voter “fraud.” The Citizens United ruling establishes corporations as individuals even as real people are losing their civil rights. Police departments are armed with combat weapons and people of color live in fear. University tuitions are as high as $57,000 a year while the Department of Education just ended a program to oversee student loan programs. I am sure we all can go on and on, naming the terrifying changes we are seeing.
Yet we must go on. So what must we do now?
I urge us all to learn, explore and remember all our history. In 1980, Isaac Asimov wrote: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States… nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” Don’t believe it! Make it a point to discover the stories of people often left out of mainstream history: children, women, people of color, gay men, lesbians, transgender people, Native Americans, slaves, factory workers, hoboes, soldiers, prostitutes, suffragists, scientists, servants, tattoo artists, performers, and even politicians.
Support organizations that continue the work to research and preserve our past. This includes everything from the Association of Moving Image Archivists, the Zinn Education Project, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to your town’s public library and historical society.
Preserve your own memories and mementos of past. Hang on to those photos, home movies, and diaries! Keep your concert stubs (you can see how old I am), books, political pins, video games. Check out and support Home Movie Day!
Talk about your past in an honest way. Try not to hide the good things you remember, nor sugar-coat the bad.
Here at Milestone, we hope that we are doing the kind of preservation and education that will offer a wider, bolder, and more inclusive view of the art of cinema and of our history. But we also want to foster a community of people who cherish the power and beauty of motion pictures and honor and respect one another. With that in mind, we invite all of you to consider contributing your thoughts to our blog page. If you have something you would like to share, please send it along!
“If you think about film in the bare sense it is nothing but space and light and the placement of people inside these two illusions.” Kathleen Collins said in a filmed lecture to Howard University film students in 1984. To listen to Collins speak is to learn a great many things about life from a person who recognized the white world’s limitations in seeing her. “Their ability to asses me is entirely dependent on the packaging. You see because I am a packaged person to them.” A few years earlier the American Playhouse had commissioned a play by Collins. She felt that as the only black woman among seven white women playwrights, they were inclined to stage her play if it fit their quota not because of how the play made them feel, think, respond. “It is important to understand one’s role in society but also one's emotional role. For the role of the insider to have the outsider to project their sins on. Black people in America are classic outsiders.”
Whatever obsessed Kathleen Collins, she wrote about. The breadth of her work is expansive but always resides “in ideas, in how human beings evolve which is true to how they are in the center of their being.” As a young playwright, she began with where people lived and what their habits were. Collins was born in New Jersey; her maternal family dates back 300 years to Gouldtown, a settlement begun by an interracial couple. She held a BA in philosophy and religion from Skidmore College, attended Harvard Graduate School and in 1965 won a scholarship to study in France at the Paris-Sorbonne University. Her first film class in Paris required her to watch a film 15 times and analyze its relationship to literature. In her 1984 lecture at Howard, Collins said, there is a “false assumption that if you do good work people are going to pat you on the back.” Collins’ work was beloved among her fellow black filmmakers and academics, but not seen by the broader American audience. Her second film Losing Ground in 1982 never had a theatrical release in the United States, though it did play once at the Museum of Modern Art in 1983 as part of their Cineprobe series. To see Collins on film speak at Howard is to see a person undefeated by a world encouraging inauthenticity because it is easier to sell. We learn from her that she walks a lot and reads a lot; she doesn’t eat meat or white flour. She runs to clear the mind, and she meditates. She writes everyday in her diary. “The two words you should have down on your paper if you are an academic are real and symbolic.” To Collins, real was the conscious mind and symbolic was the unconscious. Both must be worked not just for writing but for living.
In one of its non-theatrical screenings, Losing Ground was shown at a retirement home in Harlem and Collins remembers everyone was over 80. There was a man who wandered in off the street. Moved by what he saw he spoke back to the film. Losing Ground is the story of Sara, played by the exquisitely voiced Seret Scott, and Victor, played by boyishly good-looking Bill Gunn. They are two people in a marriage, Victor looking out and Sara looking in. Their places in the end finally switch with Victor seeing Sara not as a symbol of wife or a subject to be painted, but as the real woman he has missed. The film had not found distribution because in 1982 upon its release the distributors who saw it incredibly told Collins “black people don’t speak that way.”
“Is he someone who dreams a lot?” Collins asks at Howard of a student describing a character he is at work on. At 19, she read the philosophical novel The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky to understand why certain people were oppressed. “Why were we outsiders?” Collins asked. The influence on Collins at 25 of Jean-Paul Sartre opens Losing Ground and it is not the questions themselves but the act of questioning. Sara questions intellectually and Victor instinctually. Sara is for Collins “Real” and Victor “Symbolic.” Both have their mentors. For Sara it is the academic and philosophical books that she reads. For Victor it is Carlos a painter friend who is an abstractionist and paints from images in his mind. Victor believes Carlos is pure, though he himself paints the world around him. In one scene Victor draws us. Standing on a street in upstate New York. Framed by a sign with yellow arrows going in two ways. He looks into the camera and sketches. At Howard, three years before she would pass away at the age of 46 to cancer, Collins said “The pleasure of writing is imagining people laughing or being amused at your work.” She had an internal audience of all her literary and cinematic influences “those are the ones you really write to.” Collins was not a symbol of a black woman filmmaker but a real person and, if we are academics, humans, artists, interested in questioning the split in our society of outside versus in, we must internalize Collins as part of our audience and continue to write back to her.