Outfest, the largest and best known LGBTQ film festival in North America, had its opening gala on Thursday, July 12, at the Orpheum Theater in downtown L.A., and things took on a political tone, seemingly more than any previous year. Filmmaker Angela Robinson, awarded the Outfest Achievement Award, issued a call to action for attendees (we were there for a screening of Studio 54 —The Documentary) to vote and get more involved in the midterm elections in light of the Trump administration's rollback of protections for members of the LGBTQ community and fear over its conservative nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It seems the fears many had about potential discriminatory practices since the 2016 presidential election have come to fruition, but the good news is, they have also fueled and fired up artists and creators more than ever. Many of the filmmakers showcasing works at this year's Outfest were driven by these frustrations, no one more than director Billy Clift, whose new movie, A Long Road to Freedom: The Advocate Celebrates 50 Years debuts Thursday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in Beverly Hills.
"[I was] scared, confused and felt helpless," Clift recalls. "I searched inside myself trying to figure out what I could do to help. I wasn't one to take a sign and stand with thousands of others and feel that that was enough. I had heard about the Black Cat and its raid on New Year's and the protest that occurred two months later — the largest gay and lesbian protest that had ever happened, and no one had ever heard of it."
Clift searched the internet for information about the Silver Lake incident (which happened before Stonewall) and found, he says, the only man still alive who had been at that protest. He interviewed him and others about the watershed moment in gay history (which the hip crowds who go to the current incarnation of Black Cat probably haven't a clue about). Here TV (which owns the The Advocate) caught wind of his project and reached out to him about taking it further.
"I had done a feature film for them a year before and some web series," says the writer-director, who grew up part of an entertainment family in Hollywood and had a successful career as a hair and makeup artist (notably Elizabeth Montgomery’s personal and professional assistant until her death in 1995) before he transitioned to film. "We had a meeting and brought the whole aspect of The Advocate in [since it] had been birthed from all of this as well. And it was a perfect fit."
Here Media, which owns Here TV and The Advocate offered to help finance the project. Here TV producer David Millbern became involved and the pair, who Clift says "think the same way, visually and vocally," got to work. The film chronicles the history of the LGBTQ struggle as reflected by the seminal publication, and pivotal moments are explored (Stonewall, Harvey Milk’s win in San Francisco and his life's work and death) but Clift says he sought to spotlight others as well, such as the important events in Silver Lake. The film depicts these events with a mix of archival and re-created footage that "feels like the period," he says. "No one took footage at the very beginning because they were in fear of being seen. There were actually very few photos as well. But from the ONE Archives at USC I did get the best of what we have."
After Clift interviewed Alexei Romanoff, the last surviving protester at Black Cat, the film grew from there. Bob Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, wanted to be a part of it, and that brought in a celeb contingent. Clift says getting Laverne Cox (Orange Is the New Black star and transgender activist) as narrator came about thanks to Lucas Grindley at The Advocate, who met with her manager about the doc.
"It happened quite fast. At that point I had no idea really what I wanted her to say, and over a weekend I figured it out," Clift says. "She came in an incredible pro, smiling and unassuming, all by herself, and nailed it. What a joy."
Clift also got a song by Melissa Etheridge for the film near its completion, which he calls "the last piece to the puzzle." Despite some of the somber themes depicted, they wanted a hopeful and uplifting ending. "The song was suggested by a few people. We listened and it was determined that we were going to get it no matter what," Clift says. "We found out who her people were and we also came in from another direction — the Gay Mens Chorus of L.A., who did backup [on it], so we also reached out to them. In a few weeks, Melissa said yes. It's so exciting to finish this film with this song, as if it was written for it."
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For half a century now, The Advocate has been providing information about gay issues across the county. For a long time it was the only resource. Clift, like many in the queer community, has always had a respect and appreciation for the information the newspaper provided. "The Advocate told me who was important in getting laws changed, where it was safe to go, where to eat, where to dance, etc.," he says. "During the beginning of the AIDS epidemic it was the only thing telling us the latest info. As Congressman Thomas Duane states in the doc, 'It was our lifeline.'"
Clift reflects, "Right now we are going through a very similar wave in our political climate as they had in 1967. Great oppression, great fear of others [who are different], and people going to the streets to voice their feelings. Today it seems overwhelming to fight where everything is coming at us. ... But [people] were in fear of everything back then; losing their jobs, being beaten and possibly killed, having to live double lives. Much worse then where we are today, and they did not let up. They persisted. We can be reminded of that. If they can do it, we can, too."
A Long Road to Freedom: The Advocate Celebrates 50 Years premieres at Outfest with a screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in Beverly Hills, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 19. Tickets and info at Outfest.org/filmguide/the-advocate-celebrates-50-years/. After its festival run, the film will premiere on Here TV followed by a 20-city theatrical release.
See Outfest.org's Film Guide section for a full list of films.