Interview: How Jewel’s Catch One made history

Jewel's Catch One

Jewel Thais Williams

It’s easy to see a documentary filmmaker’s passion shine through when they are deeply invested in a project. Such is the case with C. Fitz’s new film, Jewel’s Catch One, which will have its Australian premiere at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Focusing on the history of Los Angeles’ legendary gay nightclub Catch One and the woman who brought it to life, Jewel Thais Williams, the film covers forty years of history and reveals as much about America as it does about the club and its beautiful owner. Frequented by the likes of Madonna, Sharon Stone, Sandra Bernhard and Thelma Houston (who first heard her Grammy Award winning “Don’t Leave Me That Way” right there on the Catch One dance floor), it would be difficult to overstate the club’s cultural significance. Fitz has gathered many of these huge names to talk about Jewel and her exceptional achievements.

Jewel is a genuine inspiration. Overcoming the prejudices she faced as a gay black woman in the 1970s, she opened Catch One in Los Angeles back in 1973. The club quickly became a cultural institution and safe haven for the gay community, particularly for those who also happened to be black. Despite countless attempts by law enforcement to shut it down and persecute those who frequented the venue, Catch One’s doors remained open for over forty years. During this period, Jewel fought hard for her community, running a clinic to provide nutritional and health advice to those in the area; undertaking initiatives to support those suffering during the AIDS epidemic; and finding ways to support countless causes focused on a more inclusive and progressive America. She has faced numerous obstacles during the course of her life, but Jewel continues to work for a better America to this day.

In Jewel’s Catch One, C. Fitz has undertaken the mammoth task of tracing the story of the legendary nightclub, with a particular focus on the woman who made it all happen and the cultural context within which this all occurred. The result is an outstanding love letter to Jewel Thai Williams, Catch One, and a reflection on how far America (and the world) has come and how far we’ve still got to go.

I recently had the honour of chatting with both C. Fitz and Jewel about this exciting project.

Congratulations on Jewel’s Catch One! It truly is a really inspiring look at an incredible woman. I’d love to hear about how you came to choose Jewel as the subject for a film.

Fitz: Thanks! Jewel’s running a little late but she’ll join us soon. I met her back in April 2010. I volunteered my time to direct a two to three minute piece because she was being honoured at a charity that I was involved in. I remember the first day I met her. I was very excited because of the history of the nightclub. I met her in her clinic, which is literally right next-door. At the time she was also running a vegan restaurant in the lower part of the club. Pretty amazing.

I was reading the cliff notes as I was waiting for her to come out in her doctor whites. I was just shaking my head. How am I going to portray her life in just two to three minutes? It’s impossible. I told her we have to do a full documentary, but I don’t think she believed me. There wasn’t a lot covered on her. Here and there she has definitely been given awards. So there were snippets here and there. There was radio material. Some archival video. Some footage of the big party Madonna had there for her music album opening party in 2000. Honestly, we scoured every library. Every newspaper locally. We just pulled together every little snippet we could on her, including the arson fire that happened in 1985.

But she agreed to let me follow her around. I don’t think she thought I was serious. Certainly not so serious as to go on a six-year long journey with her. I met a lot of folks and really dug into her community. Forty-two years is a lot to cover. Not only do you have the amazing history of the nightclub and all this music and all the celebrities that went through it. She also helped change history in law through the organisation she co-created and helped fund. And even just gave people a space to grow.

C. Fitz

C. Fitz

How do you go about choosing the things you’re going to focus on? There’s a huge amount of material in this documentary. What guides you?

Fitz: It was a ten-hour rough cut. No lie! It was so hard to let some of the stories go. I cover the fortieth anniversary where people came out from all over to celebrate. Of course, I covered the last dance at her closing – yet another huge party where people came from all over. So many people came up to our cameras thanking Jewel for saving their lives. For giving them a job. For giving them a space where they felt okay and safe. For helping their loved ones. But we couldn’t fit them all. What guided me was, I wanted to tell history through her story. That was important to me because she lived it. She helped changed it. She stood up to the police, to the fire folk, to the neighbours. At one time or another she had to sort of stand up and be a voice for so many people and be an example. A leader. I don’t know how she did it. It was amazing.

What’s really amazing is some of the names that pop up in the film. You’ve got everyone from Sharon Stone to Sandra Bernhard. How did you seek these people out?

Fitz: Every which way I could. We were really fortunate, I think. The celebrities in the film didn’t even blink an eye when they were asked. They know what Jewel has done over four decades. They know how hard she’s worked for others. They also know how much fun they had!

For instance, Sharon Stone went and danced there and had an amazing time. She also showed up and supported her fundraisers for Rue’s House, which was a shelter for women with AIDS and their children. She was happy to come on board and lend her voice.

Same thing with Thelma Houston. I bumped into her in Los Angeles. There was this large list I compiled with Jewel over many years. It was all the celebrities she could remember hung out at The Catch. There was quite a list. I didn’t know Thelma, but I brought up that I was doing a documentary on Jewel and Catch. At that point the word had just gotten out that it was being sold. She was happy to lend her story. That’s a big piece of history. The first time she heard her Grammy Award winning song “Don’t Leave Me That Way” was in the Catch. That’s just amazing and beautiful. Same for Evelyn Champagne King. A great advocate for Jewel and the work that she’s done.

Jewel: Hey. I’m sorry I’m late!

Hi Jewel! So we were just talking about the film, of course. I saw it a couple days ago. Congratulations. You’re very inspiring.

Jewel: Thank you, James.

I’m curious. Were you involved in the production of the film at all? Or did you get to watch it all happen?

Fitz: Definitely first hand. I mean, she obviously gave the green light to do it back in 2010. There’s a lot on the cutting board that couldn’t make it… she helped there. She was involved a lot in what we should capture, for sure. She didn’t have to sit through the ten-hour rough cut. She did sit through a three-hour one though!

Jewel at 'Catch One'

Jewel at Catch One

Jewel, how do you feel about the final film?

Jewel: Oh I’m very pleased with it. I’m delighted. I have called Fitz a genius for being able to make this film. For putting forty-two years into eighty-four minutes was a phenomenal task, I know. She did it in style. She has been able to win many awards for her work. I’m just happy that she chose me to be the focus of her documentary.

Jewel, watching the film… it’s obviously about your life but at the same time it’s about your club. Beyond that, it’s about the history of the United States, especially in terms of prejudice relating to race and sexuality. I’m curious how you feel things have changed in those forty-two years? How much more do they need to change?

Jewel: A lot! Look at the results of the last election. All of the issues the documentary was about are still there and showed themselves in the election results. We still have a long way to go, James. But there have been some changes. The younger generation has awakened and collectively will make the difference we’re looking for. Of course… with advice from the adults and the elders like myself. Raising consciousness through talking about what has been going on for three or four hundred years. It needs to come to an end once and for all.

This is probably a question for both of you. If there were one thing that you’d like people to take away from the film, what would it be?

Jewel: I think that I pretty much summed it up with the last question. But even more than that, it’s that if we all did something for someone else… if we all came to a consciousness around what it is that we need to be about… these acts of kindness all add up. Help to plan. Help your neighbours. Help your children. Help anybody that comes to you that you can help. Love each other and make progress because of it.

Fitz: #DoMore is one of the hash tags we use for the film because it inspires. You’ll be entertained through the music, the celebrity and the story. Most importantly you’ll want to do more in your own life. That’s what we hope that people take away. From watching Jewel’s life, everyone who watches it will want to do more.

Absolutely. Can I ask what’s next on the cards for both of you?

Fitz: We’re looking for distribution and we’re writing the scripted version of Jewel’s Catch One, which is really exciting. Digging into Jewel’s life through a scripted form so it can reach larger audiences. Then like I said, looking for distribution. We’ve been busy with that for sure.

And Jewel, I believe you’re opening a new clinic?

Jewel: Yeah. Actually the new clinic is an extension of the old clinic. For the future I’d like to see an all-inclusive holistic centre. Where there would not only be acupuncture and the things that we do now but extend to other complementary medical modalities…massage, yoga, Arabic medicine, and integrative medicine. To have all of that in one location where we could do some western medicine as well. Having it all under one roof is my dream for the future.

You continue to be ridiculously busy by the sound of it.

Jewel: Mm-hmm. I don’t want it ever to end. That won’t happen any time soon.

Can I ask, whether either of you will be joining us at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival?

Fitz: I hope to make it over there. I would love it. I’ve never been and it will be the Australian premiere of our film!

Tickets to see Jewel’s Catch One at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival are now available.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

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