Review: ‘Jewel’s Catch One’

Inside Out 2017

6 mins read

Jewel’s Catch One
(USA, 90 min.)
Dir. C. Fitz


In the ‘70s, Los Angeles was a divided place with a problematic nightlife. Many bars and discos refused to serve gay African Americans. Police raids and civilian arrests were common practices that targeted black and gay communities. Jewel Thais-Williams, a black lesbian and UCLA graduate, was familiar with the racism and homophobia prevailing in the city. Witnessing how it inhibited her community, Jewel decided to open her own disco. She wanted to create a space where everyone was accepted and treated equally. In 1973, with only a $500 budget, she opened her historic Jewel’s Catch One Disco.

Jewel’s Catch One directed by C. Fitz is a vibrant and colourful documentary that pays a tribute to one of the most inclusive and diverse disco clubs of the era on the West Coast. The documentary uses its funky music and vivid visuals to capture the disco’s mood and atmosphere. Through archival footage of the club, intimate interviews with its regulars and Jewel’s personal photographs with friends and patrons, the film reveals a chronological history of Catch One.

When Jewel opened her disco, she knew that the longevity of her kind of business was only several years at best. She was also well aware of the risk entailed in opening a gay black dance bar in a predominantly white neighborhood. Despite these difficulties, Jewel successfully ran Catch One for 40 years. Her club became one of the hottest spots in town. It welcomed people of all races, genders and sexualities, and its openness was well acknowledged. At its peak, Catch One had long lines around its building. It was known for its crazy dance nights, diverse and friendly crowds and hip music. Such celebrities as Madonna, Sharon Stone and Sandra Bernhard were among the club’s regulars. And in 2000, Madonna even launched her new album at Catch One.

While the documentary acknowledges the club’s popularity and success, it primarily commemorates the astoundingly altruistic and benevolent woman behind it. Having an apartment right underneath the dance floor, Jewel dedicated her life to making the club flourish. Making money wasn’t her priority. Jewel wanted to give the black gay community a sense of safety and completeness. She made her patrons feel welcome and secure even when the police cars were patrolling right outside the club’s premises. Jewel became a “mother” to many black gay people who were rejected by their own families. She put up with constant threats from the authorities and public who couldn’t stand seeing black gay crowds in their neighbourhood. Even after someone set her club on fire, Jewel didn’t give in to fear but continued running her place with perseverance and determination.

Beginning as a touching story of an ambitious woman opening the first black gay disco in West Hollywood, the documentary’s mood gradually turns darker. The alteration occurs when Jewel reminisces about her club during the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s. During those tough times, Catch One became a refuge for many black gay men suffering from AIDS. While AIDS victims were commonly stigmatised, often by their own families, Jewel gave them comfort and shelter. At a time when the government didn’t provide any support for black people with AIDS, Jewel hosted fundraising events for them. She was hugging them when most people refused to share space with them. The documentary doesn’t sugarcoat the inhumane treatment that black AIDS victims endured in the ‘80s. It is painful and disappointing to see the government betraying its own citizens during such a horrific crisis. Simultaneously, it is this part of the film that makes you feel the abundance of love and respect felt by the filmmaker for a woman who embraced AIDS victims while others abandoned them.

In 2015, after 40 years of hard work Jewel finally sold her club. However, as her wife confirms, Jewel doesn’t plan to retire. After acquiring a degree in traditional Chinese medicine, Jewel opened her own low-cost clinic for mostly minority clients. She is now devoting the next chapter of her life to providing affordable healthcare for underprivileged people.

As the documentary covers several eras and features many interviews with Jewel’s fans and devoted friends, it’s possible to lose one’s sense of time. It seems implausible that one person could do so much for her community. The film demonstrates that someone like Jewel can fill in for an incompetent government or an absent family. Jewel’s Catch One is a documentary about a long-lasting black gay disco bar, the horrific repercussions of systematic racism and the establishment of a powerful and vibrant community. Most importantly, it is a celebration of a hero, Jewel Thais-Williams, whose humanity and dedication is boundless and beautiful.

Jewel’s Catch One screens at Toronto’s Inside Out LGBT Film Festival on June 4.


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