Film Review: We Came to Sweat (BFI Flare film festival 2015)

Director Kate Kunath, Sascha Wortzel
USA 2014, 73 mins, 27 March 2014 UK premiere.

Playing at BFI Flare Film Festival 2015

RATING: ★★★★☆

Kate Kunath and Sasha Wortzel’s engaging observational documentary looks back at the fifty year history of Brooklyn’s Starlite Lounge, a bar that was founded on the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Bergen Street in 1962 by Mackie Harris, and operated as a mainly black LGBT drinking den and safe space during the turbulent 1960s when various civil rights campaigns were ramping up. The film explores how this institution has been a cornerstone of the community ever since, and how it fell under threat in 2010.

The film alights on the bar in July 2010: an uncertain time in the Starlite’s history. Linda and Dennis, the current owners, are fretting over eviction notices they have been handed by the bar’s distant landlord, who wants to sell it and sees it purely as matter of business. Dennis and Linda promptly set about mobilizing community support to demand a new lease, and interspersed with footage of the various council meetings and protest gatherings that result from their call to arms, are interviews with the diverse range of patrons and other locals who have come to rely on the bar. Many of these interviewees have been drinking, dancing and loving it up in the bar since the 60s, and these veteran New Yorkers bring that potent air of the grizzled eyewitness to the film.

Social progress has meant that the Starlite’s LGBT patrons enjoy more freedoms now than they could have dreamed of fifty years ago, and a mix of clientele now rub shoulders at the bar. But gentrification as much as progressive social change has altered the face of New York, and the Starlite seems set to fall victim to more property horse trading. As one local sighs about his home turf: ”It was the hood once, now it’s the ‘landmark district of Crown Heights’”.

What comes across again and again in the interviews is how unique the Starlite was back in the turbulent 60s, and how important it was for those who identified as both black and LGBT to have a safe space, both then and through the later assaults from the AIDS crisis, gang violence, and the impact of crack on the city’s underclasses. Despite all the social progress that has occurred since, one younger interviewee joining the campaign to save the bar, when interviewed, says that today she still feels the joint serves that purpose, and deserves to be saved for that reason alone.

Older patrons also reminisce on how the Starlite functioned as a haven for those who perhaps didn’t feel part of the more structured (and presumably white-dominated) gay rights organisations that were making noise back then; as one local resident puts it: “Mackie started the Starlite lounge in the early 1960s, where there was no place for African-Americans to go and be part of the gay culture. There was a place in Manhattan called Stonewall that was raisin a whole lotta hell ,and lots of attention was given to that…but us African Americans, we didn’t have any place to go.”

Though it’s a short film and takes a largely straightforward approach to the subject matter, the mix of evocative archive footage, a funky contemporary score, and some colourful stories from world-weary New Yorkers combine to make Were Came to Sweat an illuminating and resonant look at a very unique patch of New York City. Londoners who have become sadly familiar with the disappearance of culture landmarks will relate.

Film Review: We Came to Sweat (BFI Flare film festival 2015)
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