Movie Review: “Upstairs Inferno”

With a deep pool of interview subjects, and a strong sense of right and wrong, Upstairs Inferno does more in 90 minutes to elicit empathy for a community of people than the city of New Orleans did in 40 years. It’s astonishing, quite frankly, the level of ignorance and vitriol that came from city and church officials in the wake of the worst gay mass murder in U.S. history. In NOLA, of all places. On the edge of the French Quarter. Amazing how lifestyles are “accepted” until they have to be publicly “acknowledged”. Replace lifestyles with humans in that sentence — that’s an additional tragedy.
I honestly was not aware of the Upstairs Lounge arson incident until I viewed this movie, and from what I understand, many others aren’t either. It’s become an event relegated to a cliffs note in history, undeserving of even the slightest recognition for the lives lost, families hurt and prejudice witnessed. This speaks more volumes than if it were given prominent presence. Upstairs Inferno describes the lounge as a social club, theatre and even church gathering place / sanctuary for gay men and women. I was briefly reminded of the second floor debauchery of The Embers Restaurant, where my father used to work. Partying would certainly take place, but it was much more harmless than the Cruising visuals some may have suspected.
The documentary shows, in gruesome detail — both through available photos and footage as well as interviews — the result of the 1973 fire, which left 32 patrons burned to death, most huddled by a window, some sticking out of the building. Such grizzly and heartbreaking news should’ve garnered immediate concern from people all over. Reactions to what happened, from government leaders to people of faith, were tragically absent and sometimes even violently heated. This is the most shocking expose of Upstairs Inferno; the knowledge that, even after civil rights movements and achievements, we haven’t changed all that much from who we were back then.
Now, the movie itself doesn’t contrast similar news of today and media reactions with what happened in the 70’s — this is left for us to connect. And it’s always in the back of your mind when viewing. We see Presidential candidates spitting out hatred regularly, Civil War memorabilia still being argued over and endless streams of baseless comments left on facebook and twitter feeds. As the movie played, I thought of what certain friends would say if such a horrific act occurred today. Actually, with the police brutality and persecution of minorities, I really don’t have to imagine anything. Just wait for the picture memes to roll in as my eyes roll around. “The largest challenge was trying to deal with the living” a faith based activist says. I absolutely see what he means.

If there is one antidote to deliver to my friends who think without compassion, it might be Upstairs Inferno, or nothing at all. The interviews with survivors, family and church officials are absolutely tear inducing. Sometimes, it’s quite painful to watch and listen to, as the filmmaker chooses not to cut away or transition to someone else when things get overly emotional. The crew demands our attention as much as the situation did 40 years ago. It almost works more as a vehicle for emotional resonance than as a historical document. We feel we’re right there in the room with the subjects, as they recount the tragedy during and after the fire.
Upstairs Inferno does it’s best work when showcasing the struggle to garner even the tiniest bit of humanity from neighbors. There was and still is a fire raging in the hearts and minds of people, one that can only be extinguished through connecting with one another. Through compassion. Through understanding and relating. Why can’t we all relate to feeling alienated? Why can’t we all relate to being harmed? This is no horror movie, but the facts and implications are indeed scary. Our nature didn’t look good then and doesn’t now. But, the city did recently place a memorial plaque at the location of the fire. Baby steps.
 4.5 / 5 *s

Originally published at on July 16, 2015.

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