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On The Tube

July 19, 2012
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By Dean Robbins

A documentary pays tribute to gay-rights pioneer Vito Russo

Vito Russo isn’t a household name, but he still deserves a spot on the Mount Rushmore of pioneering gay heroes. The documentary “Vito” (Monday, 8 p.m., HBO) tells the story of a boy who grew up with outrageous prejudice in the ’50s and ‘60s, then became an indomitable activist in the ’70s and ‘80s. Russo was a key figure in organizing a gay rights movement following the 1969 Stonewall Riots, aided by tremendous charisma and eloquence.

Russo insisted on gay equality and gay pride at a time when, as Mike Wallace puts it in an archival TV clip, “Surveys show that most Americans are repelled by the very notion of homosexuality.” He spearheaded protests and wrote the seminal study of Hollywood homophobia, “The Celluloid Closet.” Russo didn’t slow down even after contracting AIDS in the 1980s. He founded GLAAD and ACT UP and, in heartbreaking footage, demanded that the negligent U.S. government take AIDS seriously while dying from the disease.

Russo’s cousin says of this final period, “I never saw such courage in my life.”

That makes two of us.

‘Forensic Firsts’

Sunday, 8 p.m. (Smithsonian Channel)

This series is a strange hybrid. It re-creates gruesome historical crimes, with actors in vintage clothes and fake beards. That’s standard for cable-TV trash, but “Forensic Firsts” also mixes in a PBS-style educational element. A voiceover explains the significance of the sleuthing techniques involved in each investigation – for example, ballistic evidence in this week’s episode. In other words, the series is for all of you viewers who like your sleazy true-crime stories packaged with high-minded narration.

I happen to fit that profile myself, so bring on the fake beards.CV

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