I’m traveling today and didn’t have time to do a longer review in advance of Vito, HBO’s documentary about the film scholar and gay rights activist Vito Russo, but I highly recommend it to anyone interest in pop culture, in civil rights, or in how the two are deeply connected.
In another time, Russo might have spent a career studying the movies that he loved and left it at that. But not long after the Stonewall riots in 1969, Russo, a gay writer and scholar, became deeply involved in the equal rights movement. Through the 1970s, he did work in film studies that became The Celluloid Closet, a study of how the open, surprisingly accepting treatment of gays in pre-Code movies developed into stereotypical and loathing portrayals. It remains one of the most effective studies of how movies reflect and reinforce social attitudes that I’ve ever read.
(Disclosure: I have a semi-personal connection to the subject: Mrs. Tuned In did work, as an archivist, on his papers, and one of the scholars interviewed in Vito–Michael Schiavi, author of the Russo biography Celluloid Activist–was my roommate in graduate school.)
If Stonewall and its aftermath politicized Russo, the AIDS epidemic radicalized him–he contracted HIV and died of complications from AIDS in 1990–and he extended his campaign by becoming a media figure and cofounder of AIDS activist group ACT UP. Through his story, Vito becomes not just a biography but a history of his times, as a fight against discrimination became a fight for life. The movie also follows Russo’s associates through the same period–among them longtime friend Lily Tomlin (who among other stories recalls being offered the cover of TIME magazine in the ’70s if she agreed to come out in a magazine interview).
As a documentary, Vito is fairly straightforward, but by finding a thread connecting Russo’s life, his passions and his times, it manages to be something more—an example, through Russo’s shortened life, about how much can change in a generation; about how much has and hasn’t changed in the generation sine his death; and about how movies can be more than just movies.