Vito is an unforgettable human rights story

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A documentary by Jeffrey Schwartz. Rated PG.

Special coverage

It’s not often that someone is admirable in seemingly disparate areas, but it’s likely that Vito Russo never viewed his success as a human-rights activist, media personality, and film scholar as separate things.

The unforgettable Vito, made for HBO’s documentary series, was written and directed by Jeffrey Schwartz, an editor on the 1995 feature The Celluloid Closet, which was based on Russo’s best-known written work. As the new film makes clear, its subject’s whole life was poured into that book, from when the suburban New Yorker moved into “the big banana” as a giddy teenager to the years before his death, from AIDS-related complications, in 1990.

Russo’s uniqueness demanded considerable adjustment from his working-class Italian family. But what was really different about him was that he lacked the guilt gene, arguing with priests and other authority figures when he couldn’t identify anything unnatural about being gay. Although he was initially apolitical, after the Stonewall Riot he helped found the Gay Activists Alliance, although he was always most enthusiastic about the social aspect of “politics you could dance to”, as one participant recalls.

For him, that meant movie nights at GAA headquarters, screening faves by Judy Garland, as well as Carmen Miranda and women’s-prison flicks. Later, when the movement was riven by factionalism, he tried to keep lesbians, drag queens, motorcycle boys, and black militants in the same frame. (His secret weapon at one notoriously divisive get-together: Bette Midler.) Russo then turned to journalism and got lucky with a job at the film library of the Museum of Modern Art, where he discovered plenty of representations (albeit stereotypical but rarely vicious) of gay life before Hollywood censorship kicked in.

The eureka moment, as seen in copious archival footage, came with his realization that movies were shaping, not reflecting, attitudes toward sexual orientation, and that much modern self-loathing came directly from the media.

His critical eye is sorely missed, but he taught a lot of people to see.


Watch the trailer for Vito.

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