pioneer Jewel Thais-Williams opened her iconic Catch One disco |
in Los Angeles in 1973 (Photo courtesy MIBFF)
American film director C. Fitz's superb 2016 documentary film Jewel's Catch One is about one of America’s first Black discos, Catch One, which lesbian pioneer Jewel Thais-Williams opened in Los Angeles in 1973. The legendary disco was a longtime sanctuary for LGBTQ people until it closed in July 2015 after 42 years.
This film explores the iconic disco's golden years — when everybody from Sylvester to Madonna used to hang out at "The Catch" — and the legacy of Jewel the pioneering businesswoman and activist who fought hate and discrimination for decades.
Talking heads in the film include Evelyn “Champagne” King, Bonnie Pointer, Thelma Houston and Sharon Stone.
Three Dollar Bill sat down with C. Fitz on the eve of her award-winning film’s October 1 screening at the Montreal International Black Film Festival.
You followed Jewel Thais-Williams around for some six years to make this film. Why were you compelled to make this movie?
The first day I met Jewel I was directing a much shorter piece (two-to-three minutes long) for a charity as she was being honoured by the LA LGBT Center, for her service to the community. As I researched Jewel leading up to that first day I met her, I was shocked that so little was documented on her.
When I met her and learned even more about her life and service to others over four decades, I said to her, “I have no idea how I will fit ALL that you have done into a few minutes — we need to do a documentary on you.”
She said yes that first day and we began our journey.
I think it was important to include the closing (of her disco) in 2015 as the first bookend in order to highlight her healing and clinic which she still works at today (villagehealthfoundation.org). It was my way of telling the world about this amazing woman and show how one person can do so much for so many. I wanted to save history for generations to come and inspire people by her story.
Jewel stood up against racism, homophobia and hatred for those that needed a leader and a healer. It took six years to make the right film that could show people a life, the history of the legendary Catch One from its beginning in 1973 to its end in 2015, and the threads of love, music and service to others that make up Jewel’s Catch One documentary.
You have many high-profile talking heads in your film. How did you get them to come on board?
The wonderful celebrities that came on board to be interviewed all have unique stories to tell about Catch One – from fashion to music to dance to charity involvement in the many fundraisers that were held there to help the community, especially during the AIDS Crisis. I had a list of celebrities that was created over years of meeting with Jewel. Each time we met it seemed another few celebrity names popped out and was added to this list of VIPs that went through Catch One’s doors over the years.
Our wonderful cast of interviews includes Sharon Stone – who talks about dancing at The Catch undercover AND supporting its important community fundraisers – and Thelma Houston, whose Grammy award-winning song Don’t Leave Me This Way I heard for the first time at Catch before Motown even heard it!
Bonnie Pointer and Thea Austin both sing live in the film, and Evelyn “Champagne” King and (U.S. politician) Maxine Waters each (share) powerful stories relating back to the 80’s during the AIDS Crisis.
Thea Austin has even sung live during screenings (of the film). Her song Colour of Love is in the credits and her powerful message – singing it to Jewel in the film – has only made this film’s journey more powerful as an audience take-away.
What do you think is the legacy of Jewel? Why is she a genuine queer icon?
Jewel Thais-Williams is a living legend. She has dedicated her life to serve others and to heal in any way she can. Queer people, women and people of color were shunned even by gay clubs — even in West Hollywood. They were harassed and had no place to go. Jewel fought for over four decades to keep Catch One open. To give them a place they knew they could always count on.
Jewel opened those doors even though the police harassed her and — as stated in the film — sometimes with rifles drawn. She opened the doors when she had little money and wasn’t making a profit because she knew her community counted on her and needed Catch One to be there for them. It was a home that the LGBT and Black community needed.
But she didn’t stop there.
When the AIDS Crisis hit, Jewel assessed what her community needed, as many of her patrons were dying. She raised funds for them, their loved ones, helped plan funerals and, with her wife Rue, even opened a shelter for women with AIDS and their children.
Jewel has never stopped serving her community. She created the legendary Catch One and she should be celebrated as a national hero.
Jewel's Catch One screens at the Montreal International Black Fim Festival on October 1. Visit montrealblackfilm.com for more details and tickets.