“We Came To Sweat” documentary pays homage to Starlite Lounge, Brooklyn’s oldest black-owned gay bar

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When the Starlite Lounge was slapped with a 30-day eviction notice, the “oldest black-owned, non-discriminating bar/club in the heart of Brooklyn” was forced to vacate. In We Came To Sweat, a documentary shown at this year’s QDoc in Portland, director Kate Kunath and co-director Sasha Wortzel presented the very real and (sometimes) sad sign of our times.

Our gay bars, once safe havens in our community, are dropping like flies. Starlite Lounge, known as a “pre-Stonewall” hang-spot for locals was a hotspot in its heyday, the marquee on its corner at 1080 Bergen St. shining bright like the star it was—for half a century of business. And that business was boogying down. Starlite saw its height in the midst of the AIDS crisis, and bar patrons were out every night to dance, mingle, perform, and over a period of time, create a community that relied upon itself to simply: be there, like family.

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At Starlite, Lady Jasmin, Mama Dot, owners Linda and Dennis, and a passionate band of Starlite regulars believed in every brick that built their fine establishment. Director Kate Kunath tells AfterEllen that her involvement was clear from the start, when she first heard the bar was at risk of closing.

“The day I met Linda and Dennis—the owners—I was so concerned about the Starlite closing that I asked them that day if I could make a film about the Starlite. They luckily agreed, which was a big leap of faith on their part,” Kate said.

The impending vacate-notice would require them to hit the pavement and spread the word; it would mean putting their all into fighting for what’s rightfully theirs. “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings” has never felt so appropriate, but would Starlite really come to the end of its road after over 50 years? Who could take away such a thing?

This film presents a deeply unfair but existing issue about gentrification and its effect on the entire culture of a neighborhood. There’s a sense that what’s considered economically efficient disregards what is most vital: preserving history, safe spaces, happiness and social justice. When you take away a hive, where does the community go? As supporters turn out by the numbers to save Starlite, everyone proceeds to rally together to save their home—speaking out to city officials, chanting on the streets, handing out flyers all over the city, and reminding each other that at the heart of this devastating blow, the Starlite is strong and proud. 

“It was their faith that opened up the potential for the film, and both directly and indirectly allowed for the critical relationships that were realized in the process,” Kate said. “Nobody had any idea what was going to happen with the Starlite, but I made them a promise that I would stick with them the whole way, which I did.”

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The music in We Came to Sweat plays as a connected character unto itself—old school disco and house tracks that made the Starlite a prime place for DJs to feature their mixes. One of the decades-long Starlite-goers dances around his home with a big grin on his face as he recalls his glory days. Inside the Starlite, there’s a lot of divey characters—photos of the original owners, dearly departed, pinned to the wall, a big ass disco ball (of course), holiday decorations and of course, the people themselves—posted up at the counter, singing karaoke, or watching Lady Jasmin perform her heart out. The possibility of such a staple disappearing, and the likelihood that many of these aging patrons will have something daily, routine, familiar and purposeful taken away is heartbreaking.

“I feel an eternal bond with Linda and Dennis for having come together to resist the permanent erasure of a vital piece of history for their family and our community,” Kate said. The Starlite was a lover, a friend, a vital piece of your family, a shelter from the storm, a place to pour out, dance it out, laugh it out, cry it out—and sweat it out.

To find out more about We Came to Sweat, check out Kate Kunath’s website. 

For a full list of films screened at QDoc 2015, and to find out how to get your film into QDoc for next year, queerdocfest.org, and tweet me with any questions or comments: @the_hoff

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