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On June 27, 1969, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar, took a surprising turn when patrons decided it was time to fight back. As a riot erupted in Greenwich Village, a new era in the gay rights movement was born. Among the crowd that day was 23-year-old film student Vito Russo. In the aftermath of the infamous rebellion, a raid on an after-hours bar he frequented ended with a young gay man impaling himself on a fence while trying to escape the police.
This is when Vito found his voice as a gay activist and critic of homosexual representation in the media. Over the next 20 years, until his death from AIDS in 1990, Vito Russo was one of the most outspoken and inspiring activists in the LGBT communityâ€™s fight for equal rights.
Recounting the life of one of the founding fathers of the gay liberation movement, the inspiring documentary â€śVitoâ€ť debuts Monday, July 23 (9:00-10:45 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.
HBO Documentary Films presents another summer series, debuting provocative specials every Monday through July 30. Other July films include: â€śHard Times: Lost on Long Islandâ€ť (July 9); â€śBirders: The Central Park Effectâ€ť and â€śThe Tsunami and the Cherry Blossomâ€ť (July 16); and â€śAbout Face: Supermodels Then and Nowâ€ť (July 30).
Directed by award-winner Jeffrey Schwarz (â€śSpine Tingler! The William Castle Story,â€ť â€śWrangler: Anatomy of an Iconâ€ť), â€śVitoâ€ť paints a touching portrait of this outspoken activist in the LGBT communityâ€™s struggle for equal rights, using period footage and film clips to capture a vibrant era of gayculture. â€śIf youâ€™re going to talk about the gay-rights movement, youâ€™re going to talk about Vito,â€ť says journalist David Ehrenstein.
The documentary features rich archival interviews with Vito, as well as insights from gay rights activists, including: Larry Kramer and Arthur Evans; film scholars, among them former MoMA film curator Jon Gartenberg; and journalists/writers such as Michael Schiavi and Gabriel Rotello. â€śVitoâ€ť also offers personal accounts from his many friends, including Lily Tomlin and Bruce Vilanch, and his family members, including brother Charles Russo and cousin Phyllis Antonellis.
Raised in the Italian neighborhoods of East Harlem, Vitoâ€™s family moved to suburban New Jersey in the 1960s, which he hated.Â At 18, Vito moved back to New York City, where he was enthralled with the sexuality and positive energy of gay liberation. He progressed to activism, and as Marsha P. Johnson, a transgendered gay rights activist states, â€śthe energy became channeled into organizations.â€ť
Vito was one of the pivotal players in many of these gay rights organizations during their formative years. He was an early member of GAA (Gay Activists Alliance), whose goal was to secure basic human rights, dignity and freedom for all gay people. He was one of the co-founders of GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), which was formed to ensurethat media representation of gays and lesbians was accurate.
Towards the end of his life, he was one of the founders of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a guerilla activist group whose goal was to bring legislation, medical research, treatment and policies to ultimately eradicate the AIDS epidemic.