2 min

Black century

Homo elder has seen it all

DOC SPOT 1. Ruth Ellis is the star of Yvonne Welbon's inspiring Living With Pride.

For communities whose stories are frequently lost or ignored, there is no over-estimating the importance of witnesses to history. And Ruth Ellis, a 100-year-old black lesbian in Detroit, has seen more than most.

Ellis is the star of Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis At 100, a new documentary by Yvonne Welbon. The documentary takes us through the century and through Ellis’ life, as someone who has seen, and help achieve, stunning advances in the lives of African-Americans, women and lesbians.

“I’m a black woman and a lesbian,” says Welbon. “And I’m a history major. I’m particularly interested in history that was never recorded. As a history graduate, I was really upset by what we couldn’t study. Part of my mission is to make films about things we have no records of.”

But when Welbon met Ellis, she knew she had found a living record, a woman who, even at 100, is eloquent, humourous and tirelessly energetic.

“I met her,” says Welbon, “in May, 1997, at a women’s music festival in Bloomington, Indiana. I was dancing with my girlfriend and we saw this older woman dancing. We were trying to figure out how old she was.”

After talking to Ellis, Welbon quickly decided that a film was essential. Originally planning a short, she soon realized that Ellis’ story demanded at least the hour-long documentary that eventually emerged.

Ellis was an early pioneer for both women’s rights and the rights of gays and lesbians.

After growing up in a time when lynchings and burnings were still a fact of life, Ellis moved to Detroit in the 1930s, where, as an open lesbian, she bought a home with her lover. That home served as a locus for black gays and lesbians in Detroit, long before Stonewall when gay bars still refused admittance to black patrons.

Ellis also became an accomplished photographer, and one of the first women to own her own printshop. And she was always open about her sexuality.

“She didn’t really have any problems with coming out,” says Welbon. “She’d always been out to her family. She printed all the church bulletins for all the churches. Now, they’d probably boycott her.”

But Ellis has become a heroine not just to women in Detroit, but all over the US.

The film has sold out in LA and San Francisco. And during San Francisco’s Pride, Ellis spoke to a dyke march of 40,000.

“I didn’t even know she was that well recognized. There’s such a hunger to see some lesbian history. It was actually quite amazing.”

Living With Pride, shown with Hot Irons, screens at 3:30pm on Thu, Sep 16 and 6:30pm on Sat, Sep 18 at the Royal Ontario Museum (100 Queen’s Park).

Toronto International Film Festival.

$11.77 per screening.

Thu, Sep 9-18.

Box Office: 444 Yonge St.

(416) 968-FILM.