Apr 132012
Scene from 'Vito'

“In the middle of the river, he changed the current.” – Howard Roseman

Vito Russo lived his entire life unapologetic and transparent: true to his own code that stated that homosexuality is not something you do, it’s something you are.

With an impressive collection of vintage footage, Jeffrey Schwarz’s Vito (playing on April 13 and 14 at Landmark Magnolia) documents the engaging and extraordinary story of a man considered a hero by some and the first gay celebrity by others, but who was inarguably one of the LGBT community’s first champions for equal rights, both voluntarily and involuntarily.

Though the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969 were the flash point that started Russo’s lifelong journey of activism, a parallel front—his love for film—led to his examination of elements in Hollywood productions had been buried and censored by the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hayes Code) of 1930. That research inspired his 1981 book, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, which propelled the charismatic Russo to the forefront of his cause — a cause that’s still vital 21 years later because Hollywood censorship still exists, said Schwarz.

“It comes by way of MPAA ratings,” he said. “It’s economic censorship, and very frustrating because it prevents some people from seeing a movie. As filmmakers, we can’t get to the audiences we want to screen to. My dream would be to show Vito in every high school in America.”

But the acute homophobia generated by the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s prompted the need for a new level of activism — a role Russo also filled by helping to found the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in 1985 and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) two years later. His own battle with AIDS, which claimed his life in 1990, only magnified his involvement.

“I think Vito’s work with AIDS was his most important legacy, but his visibility was also key,” said Schwarz. “Oftentimes he was frustrated with gay people who didn’t do enough…and with so many problems in the world, he encouraged people to get involved.

“I hope audiences will be energized about Vito and how far gay and lesbian rights have come in the last 40 years. Sometimes we are impatient and want to see immediate changes, but these things take time; change doesn’t happen overnight. Even so, Vito would be proud of where we are now.”

Irene I. del Corral