Documentary Review: ‘A LONG ROAD TO FREEDOM: The Advocate Celebrates 50 Year’

Review by Jacquelin Hipes

A Long Road to Freedom uncomfortably straddles the line between feature-length documentary and limited series. In just under two hours, it attempts to touch on nearly every major event and milestone in the LGBTQ+ rights movement from 1967 to present day. With such a deep and complicated history to cover, no topic can truly receive the attention it’s due. Yet the choices of where to linger and what gets glossed over are uneven, at times assuming a familiarity with the movement and at others rehashing details that are likely already common knowledge.

Major headlines like the Stonewall riots in 1969 or the Moscone—Milk assassinations in 1978 get relatively little attention, despite both being major rallying points for the community. By contrast, the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the role that advocacy groups like ACT UP played in education and medical treatment are explored in detail, making up one of the most intriguing portions of the documentary.

Writer/director William Clift features a slew of notable figures and advocates from throughout the movement’s history. In selecting which anecdotes to include, the issues of relevance and runtime again make themselves known. While some stories enrich the larger historical narrative, others are more personal or rambling.

This is where the question of a limited series format comes into play. A fifty year history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement, and the role of prominent publication The Advocate in that movement, could easily dominate a runtime two to three times that of a feature film. That additional space would have allowed both the obscure and mainstream events equal examination, with plenty of time for the perspectives and reminiscences of those who witnessed them.

Matters of visibility and inclusivity are discussions as important within the LGBTQ+ movement as they are outside of it, and Clift handles them as gracefully as the scope of his documentary allows. Several POC LGTBQ activists are featured in the predominantly white cast, drawing attention to the added discrimination that people of color can face beyond the judgements made based on their sexual orientation alone. Clift also touches on how the trans community was finally included in the movement, represented by the “T” of LGBTQ+.

Arguably one of the most recognizable and outspoken advocates for the trans community, actress Laverne Cox was an excellent choice of narrator for the film. Unfortunately, she was seldom used throughout the documentary, though one can hope having her name attached to project draws more attention to it.

While the final product struggles with an uneven approach to such a broad history, the LGBTQ+ rights movement, as well as the individuals and organizations who fueled it these last fifty years, is an important and worthy subject. The personal touches of its interviewees lend an emotional gravitas to the sprawling timeline, and nearly every viewer is likely to walk away having learned something they didn’t know before.

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