Vito Russo was like the Zelig of the gay community, or maybe its Forrest Gump. He was there at Stonewall, there at the Gay Activist Alliance’s “zaps,” there for the founding of GLAAD and there as ACT UP challenged the mainstream to address the AIDS epidemic.
But instead of just witnessing history like those fictional characters, Russo helped change its course: In the new HBO documentary Vito, premiering Monday night at 9pm, we see the late activist and film historian emerge as an unlikely leader for his gay generation and learn how he shaped not just how LGBT people saw themselves on screen, but in the real world, as well.
If Russo is know by today’s gays it’s generally for The Celluloid Closet, his seminal discourse on queer representations in film from the silent era to the 1980s. Operating at a time before DVDs or the Internet, he put forth the shocking proposition that gay people had a right to both celebrate and question how we were portrayed in movies—and made us realize that such depictions had a profound impact.
“He introduced me to a whole world of images I had no idea existed, and helped me see films in a new way,” says Vito director Jeffrey Schwartz. “As an activist, Vito knew that the key to acceptance was visibility and [he] championed sympathetic and realistic portrayals of our lives.
But Russo was hardly just a film buff. Ditching his family’s home in New Jersey as early as he could, he quickly became a part of New York’s vibrant queer-activist community in the 1960s and ’70s. And Vito the movie gives us an incredible look at a sizable chunk of gay history we often forget (or never learned) about: the growing years, after the initial explosion of Stonewall but before the AIDS crisis. The documentary benefits tremendously from footage culled from the New York Public Library’s LGBT archives, including the Gay Activists Alliance’ takeover of City Hall to protest for marriage rights and impromptu parties held at the firehouse community activists occupied in the early 1970s.
Not all the imagery is positive: I was stunned to see a gay-rights rally in Washington Square devolve into name calling and acrimony as lesbians, gay men and drag queens each fault each other for the movement’s stagnation. Even the timely arrival of Bette Midler—courtesy of Russo—couldn’t save the day.
While Russo is depicted as a peacemaker and unifier in many parts of Vito, in the final reel he emerges as an angry firebrand, unafraid to confront indifferent (or outright hostile) government agencies and medical professionals as the AIDS epidemic ravages thousands—including Russo himself. The ACT UP takeover of FDA offices in 1988 is another forgotten historic moment we are thankfully made privy to.
We also learn about the personal side of Russo—his friendships with people like Midler, Larry Kramer and especially Lily Tomlin (who is interviewed for the film and executive produced the HBO documentary version of Celluloid Closet); his close connection to his supportive Italian family; and even his rocky relationship with lover Jeffrey Sevcik, whose death preceded his own.
As Schwartz says, Russo’s story “was also the story of our community” and neither must be allowed to be forgotten. Vito Russo might not have lived to see gays in the military, a president supportive of marriage equality or the tremendous breakthroughs in AIDS treatments, but he paved the way for the freedoms we enjoy today and those we will celebrate in the future.
Vito will resonate with anyone who lived through the grassroots years of the LGBT movement, and should be considered required viewing for anyone who didn’t.
Vito airs July 23 at 9pm on HBO
Click through for more archival images of Vito Russo from the New York Public Library