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March 30, 2015

FestivalsFilm + EntertainmentReview | by Francesco Cerniglia


It’s not often that you find yourself emotional over the closure of a bar you’ve never been to. Even less so if it’s in a city you don’t live in, serving a community you don’t belong to. Throw in the fact that the closure in question happened five years ago and it’s clear just how remarkable We Came to Sweat’s achievement is in reducing this writer to an emotional wreck.

The film’s subject is Brooklyn’s iconic Starlite, one of the first ever black-owned gay bars, having opened in 1962 – five years before the infamous Stonewall Inn ever appeared. Filmed in 2010, the documentary was triggered by the sad news that a new owner intended to evict the Starlite – the bar set to become one more victim of the gentrification of Brooklyn.

While the film opens with a primer on the history of the space and its significance to the gay black community, before long it shifts to its real focus, documenting the increasingly desperate efforts to rally the local community and save the bar from closure. The bar’s owners and staff are joined by activists to pursue every legal avenue, but are ultimately powerless before a new owner who simply wants a mobile phone shop on the premises – they’d have “nice signs.”

It’s a testament to the lasting importance of the bar in this Brooklyn neighbourhood that so many of the film’s cast are regulars who frequented the bar for decades, in some cases even since it first opened. Again and again people recount their first ever feeling of being free and open at the Starlite, while others argue that the bar and its owners helped make the surrounding neighbourhood one where anyone could feel safe to be openly gay.

As the film progresses, the inevitability of the bar’s closure looms, and it’s here that We Came to Sweat comes into its own. For all the lofty rhetoric about its power as a symbol or the centre of community, it’s plain to see from the faces of staff and patrons alike that it’s their own personal connection that really matters here. They’re slowly but surely losing a loved one here, and it’s genuinely heartbreaking to watch.

A climactic finale shows us the bar in full swing on its closing night, with directors Kate Kunath and Sasha Wortzel’s close camerawork bringing the audience directly into this final, poignant party. As resident drag queen Lady Jasmin collapses in tears mid-performance, it becomes almost impossible to maintain an intellectual detachment from the subject matter.

At its core then, We Came to Sweat is a very personal, and powerful, tragedy, made all the more impressive by “just” being about a bar. Don’t miss it.

Dominic Preston