Film Review: Jewel’s Catch One at BFI Flare

Being different is not a blessing or a curse, it’s what you make it – and you have the power to make it into anything you want. This is the seemingly idealist, but sublimely compelling message of Jewel’s Catch One, a heartening documentary on the most revered and cherished disco for the LGBT community in Los Angeles. Despite its historical roots, the film focuses less on providing a comprehensive chronicle of the club’s evolution and more on shedding light on the ethnic violence in Hollywood, as well as how bravery and a strong purpose can impact the lives of thousands of people.

Jewel’s Catch One

With a staggering, pained history and a deep-seated love for those who didn’t fit the Procrustean bed of society, Catch One was a safe haven for marginalized people for 42 years, until it was finally closed in 2015. The club came into being due to the startling amount of discrimination and hatred shown to LGBT individuals, who were denied access or harassed in most of West Hollywood’s discos. The interviews with celebrities like Thelma Houston, Sharon Stone, Thea Austin and Evelyn “Champagne” King are all riveting testimonials which share the same heartwarming gratitude for the founder of the club.

Writer Suzy Kassem claims that “to be successful, one has to be one of three bees – the queen bee, the hardest working bee, or the bee that does not fit it”. Jewel Thais-Williams, the beautiful soul who made Catch One a reality, is all three combined. Having been dealt what most would call a bad hand in life, Jewel was an impoverished black woman who came out as a lesbian in a time when racism, sexism and homophobia were more rampant than ever. Jewel was not only hurt by the treatment she received from others, but also from witnessing the abhorrent, constant persecution of friends and strangers who were, like her, underprivileged. Although she was living in a black neighborhood, gays and lesbians were still shunned by the African-American community and were restricted from entering most nightclubs. So Thais-Williams decided to take fate into her own hands, found a broken-down bar on Pico and Crenshaw and turned it into one of the most beloved hotspots in town, where prejudice and animosity would be left at the door.

Filmmaker C. Fitz does an astounding job condensing the lengthy and remarkable history of Catch One, as well as combining gripping conversations with the club’s regulars and archival footage of Jewel in the midst of managing her club. However, as with any highly ambitious endeavors which demand equality and threaten the status quo, the disco had its fair share of incursions and backlash. Gene La Pietra states in the film that the police would perform inspections every day instead of yearly – one of many examples of how bigoted law enforcement officers attempted to harass the owner and clientele. In 1985, Jewel’s business and lifelong dream was at risk of perishing when the nightclub was burned down to the ground. The case was never solved, but Jewel’s dedication was unyielding and in two years’ time the entrepreneur managed to reopen.

Fitz also uncovers the grim aspects of Thais-Williams’ quest for justice by taking a look at her darker days of drug abuse and alcoholism during the 1980s. However, the film merely glances over these issues and, in doing this, takes away from the audience somewhat vital chunks of Jewel’s struggles, in an attempt to pay homage and build up a worthy tribute to her astonishing legacy. Her vibrant, gargantuan presence onscreen in the documentary, as well as off-screen in the lives of so many members of the LGBT community is breathtaking, but certainly not without its ups and downs. Jewel ultimately managed to rise beyond substance abuse and provided a nurturing home for many sufferers during the HIV epidemic. She also became an acupuncturist and started her own non-profit health organization. Her unconditional compassion not only extended to her fellow humans, but to all living beings, as the documentary also offers a sneak peek into her vegan restaurant, a small side business she later initiated. When watching the documentary, it is difficult not to become enthralled with her mesmerizing personality and vitality and even more difficult to remain unmoved and not become inspired to fearlessly venture on our own paths of activism and self-discovery.

As Jewel herself says in the film, “Catch was created to fulfil a need” – a need for decency, fairness and shelter from injustice. But what was initially a protective, underground response to all of the hate in the world became far more than a sanctuary for the oppressed. Jewel’s emotional journey grew into a testimony of acceptance and staunch kindness, which proved to every single person who bared witness to its evolution that a kind soul with a resolute purpose knows no boundaries.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Alexander Ryll
Launched in June 2014, Gay Essential is the world’s largest gay themed film blog promoting new and rare features. I am helped by some amazing writers and we also cover film festivals in the UK and USA. We are 100% independent, without advertising or funding by film distributors. Help to keep Gay Essential independent by purchasing our merchandise GET (Gay Essential Tees)
Alexander Ryll

@gayessential

'Gay Essential' is the world's largest gay-themed film blog. Tweets by @alexanderryll 'GET' our merchandise https://t.co/eIzMjk5Qlp
#BigBen falls silent in London today for four years, but not my Big Ben @RugbyBenCohen Have a great working week… https://t.co/8P5vX0gDXr - 19 mins ago
Alexander Ryll