Vito documents the life of one of history’s most prominent gay activists who played an essential role in eliminating the taboo of homosexuality in the ‘60s and who went on to do the same for AIDS in the ‘80s. Kristy Hutter reviews Jeffrey Schwarz’s inspiring documentary which is currently being shown at the BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
Vito is the straightforward telling of Vito Russo’s life, even though his life was anything but monotonous or boring. Growing up, Russo always knew he was gay and his family accepted him. It was this support that gave him the strength and power he needed to fight for equality. Mid 60s, he became involved in the political movement for gay rights – he fought against police brutality, hosted rallies to bring society’s marginalized minority groups together, and started a cultural revolution from which gays embraced their sexuality while adopting a sexual freedom that was previously deemed unthinkable.
In the ‘70s, when he was working in the film archives of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Russo penned ‘The Celluloid Closet’, a book that analysed sub textual and subliminal gay and lesbian references in film from the early 1920s through to the ‘60s – a time period during which such references were banned. The success of his novel took him around the world and made him relatively famous.
In the 1980s, he became a prominent agent in the fight against AIDS. After his partner died of the disease, Russo became the face of Act Up – a campaign that spoke out against the Reagan government’s refusal to address the epidemic and the large pharmaceutical companies who invented the treatment but made it extremely inaccessible to the masses. During this fight, he discovered that he, too, had AIDS and slowly began to succumb to the incurable disease.
Emotional reactions to family support
Throughout his life, Russo recruited many friends to join his battle for equality. The film presents a plethora of characters – so many it is difficult to keep track. Actresses Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin, along with film producer Jeffrey Friedman and activist Larry Kramer all make appearances in the film. But what really incites an emotional reaction from the audience is a series of interviews with Russo’s closest family members, including his brother and two cousins.
What makes this documentary by Jeffrey Schwarz so powerful is its alternative account of American history. Seldom do we see the side of history told by those who have suffered at the hands of socially constructed marginalisation and isolation. Through a series of photos and archival footage (taken by the activists themselves), we see past events and learn about issues narrated by people who hold a different perspective than what is usually presented in text books. Vito Russo acknowledged the injustices taking place within American society and stood up against the system.
No matter how challenging or disparaging the tasks he took on were, Russo never gave up. He very simply said, “I’ve always done everything I’ve wanted to do,” and what he did inspired millions. When he died, he left us with challenging manuscripts, transformed policies, fresh perspectives, swathes of enthused activists, and most importantly, the motivation to be the change we want to see in this world.
Vito will be screened at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival on Wednesday 28 March 6.40pm.