Filmmaker Robert L. Camina’s 3-year mission to document the historic raid in Fort Worth finally hits the screen

DOCUMENTARY UNCHAINED | Robert Camina has spent nearly every day for almost three years working on his documentary, which premieres in Fort Worth this week. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor


Palace AMC 9, 220 Third St.,
Fort Worth. March 15. Doors open at 7 p.m. Screening at 7:30 p.m. followed by Q&A. $20.


Like many gay North Texans, Robert L. Camina can still vividly recall the weekend of June 28, 2009 — the night the TABC and Fort Worth police raided the Rainbow Lounge.

Unlike most others, however, Camina had something they didn’t: A video camera. And a desire to use it.

On Sunday morning, as the rumblings of an apparent raid on Cowtown’s newest gay bar — on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Raid, no less — began filtering toward him through text messages and social media, Camina knew there was a story there … one he wanted to document.
“I was really trying to wrap my head around everything,” he recalls. “We don’t know what the facts were, but I thought, ‘We need to get this on video.’”

Camina grabbed his equipment and dashed down to Lee Park in Dallas, where he has planned to be anyway in support of the Million Gay March planned that afternoon.

“I knew the momentum would begin there,” he says. “I made the decision right away to make a short film about the raid.”

That “short film” never materialized. Instead, as the rumors and recriminations flew, as Fort Worth’s gay community came together surprisingly quickly to voice its outrage and as facts slowly emerged, Camina realized there was something here much bigger than he could boil down into a 20-minute documentary.

Now, nearly three years later, Raid of the Rainbow Lounge — a full 100 minutes long — gets its world premiere March 15 at the Palace AMC Theatre in Sundance Square.

“I’ve worked on [this film] in some capacity almost every single day since then. I am ready to birth the baby!” says Camina with a laugh.

It’s been an exhausting, occasionally frustrating experience. But also entirely worth all the effort.

It’s rare for a filmmaker to be involved in the subject of a documentary so immersively since the  very beginning, and for that, Camina is grateful he “had the ability to drop everything” and dive right in. “Frequently, I would drive every day over [to Fort Worth]. We didn’t know what was happening. It wasn’t a retrospective — I was in the center of the storm. I felt like a journalist.”

Even so, the process was complicated. “Facts were very fresh in people’s minds then, but people were scared to talk to the press, to investigators, to the police,” he says. Ultimately, he conducted dozens of interviews (including a 45-minute one-on-one with Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead) and compiled more than 50 hours of footage from which to piece together the events of the night of the raid, up until the City Council’s vote on gender identity protection under the city’s anti-discrimination policy.

Camina would spend hours poring over every police report, interview, memo and sworn statement taken of the TABC officers, mapping out every reason they claimed to be there, and how the events went down.

One can only imagine living with the film every day, as just a single viewing churns the muddied waters of the past. Raid of the Rainbow Lounge will force locals to relive some of the anger and confusion of those contentious months, as well as the personalities. (It gives you reason to dislike Chief Halstead all over again.)

But Camina says he has tried to keep his personal views out of the film, relying instead on invoking the facts as conveyed by the witnesses and participants.

“I tried to be as objective as possible,” Camina says. “They were in a crowded, dark, smoky bar; emotions were heightened so people would see different things,” he says of his investigative process. “Once I had interviewed everybody, I cross-referenced my interviews with their sworn statements. If there was speculation I didn’t include it or prefaced it with [that caveat].”

Still, even he couldn’t help but draw some conclusions about the truthfulness — or lack thereof — of the officers.

“Some of the statements they made were really outrageous. When Chief Halstead made the comment that he was happy with how his officers behaved, that just fanned the activist. That’s when I knew, this ain’t gonna be a short film. But the rumors took on a life of their own in the days following the raid, and a lot of those linger.” For instance, it was repeatedly suggested that the police targeted a gay club on the Stonewall anniversary specifically to send a message to the LGBT community. “I don’t think that myself,” Camina says.

On the other hand, he is equally suspicious of the party line that the officers responded with force only after being sexually molested by multiple patrons of the club. That seemed ridiculous, Camina says.

“Multiple officers claimed [they] were reaching for them in sexual manners and humping them from behind. I think we all know that drunk person — gay or straight — who might reach for an officer, but to say multiple people are doing, even after others are being arrested or thrown to the ground? I find it hard to believe. Anyway, no one testified they saw it, only that they heard it from another officer that it happened. There was a lot of hearsay on both sides.”

A coup in the finalizing of the film came only last fall, when Camina secured Emmy-nominated actress and recent out lesbian Meredith Baxter to narrate the film.

“Very early on, when I realized I started thinking about narrators, I knew I wanted a woman who was very confident but comforting and who sounded very trustworthy. [Baxter] came to mind and I set my focus on her,” Camina says. When Baxter showed up in Dallas for several media events last fall, he wrangled and introduction and pitched it to her. To his delight, Baxter agreed.

“Anytime you have a trained actor come in and breathe life into the words, the [narration] comes to life,” Camina says. (Baxter will participate in the post-screening Q&A with Camina.)

This will be the first public screening of the film, but, Camina certainly intents, hardly the last.

He’s already had some inquiries from film festivals, and says he would like to screen it in Atlanta, which had a similar raid less than two weeks after the Rainbow Lounge but handled it differently.
“I really think it’s a powerful message that could inspire other communities to get involved and make change,” Camina says. “I’d like to take on the world.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 9, 2012.