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 community's fight for equal rights.
Recounting the life of one of the founding fathers of the gay liberation movement, the inspiring documentary VITO debuts tonight, JULY 23 (9:00-10:45 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.
Other HBO playdates: July 26 (4:00 p.m., 12:50 a.m.), 29 (8:30 a.m., 5:10 a.m.) and 31 (12:45 p.m.), and Aug. 4 (3:00 p.m.) and 8 (9:15 a.m.)
HBO2 playdates: July 25 (8:00 p.m.) and Aug. 12 (11:45 a.m.) and 17 (2:30 p.m.)
HBO Documentary Films presents another summer series, debuting provocative specials every Monday through July 30. Other July films include: "Hard Times: Lost on Long Island" (July 9); "Birders: The Central Park Effect" and "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom" (July 16); and "About Face: Supermodels Then and Now" (July 30).
Directed by award-winner Jeffrey Schwarz ("Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story," "Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon"), VITO paints a touching portrait of this outspoken activist in the LGBT community's struggle for equal rights, using period footage and film clips to capture a vibrant era of gayculture. "If you're going to talk about the gay-rights movement, you're going to talk about Vito," 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. VITO also offers personal accounts from his many friends, including Lily Tomlin and Bruce Vilanch, and his family members, including brother CharlesRusso and cousin Phyllis Antonellis.
Raised in the Italian neighborhoods of East Harlem, Vito's family moved to suburban New Jersey in the 1960s, which he hated. 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, "the energy became channeled into organizations."
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.
An accomplished journalist, Vito befriended Lily Tomlin, who supported his work as a writer and activist. She notes, "He never really tried to motivate me to come out in a big way, but I knew he would have liked it." In 1975, TIME Magazine offered her the cover if she would come out. Tomlin recalls consulting with Vito about the offer and agreeing instead to an interview with Vito for The Advocate, explaining, "When they offered it [the TIME cover] to me I called Vito and I said, 'You know, it feels like I was being bought.' They wanted somebody, and they were just out fishing around to get somebody. That's why I wasn't afraid to do The Advocate interview with him, because I felt his humanity was so evolved that it wasn't like he was out to make points."