Although some may not have heard of the Jewel’s Catch One nightclub, for others it’s a legendary venue – the Studio 54 of the West Coast – that for over 40 years welcomed all, but mostly gay men and women, and was a particular refuge for the African-American LGBT population of LA. It also became a hangout for celebrities, and hosted a Madonna album launch.
This documentary looks at the club and more particularly the woman who founded it, Jewel Thais-Williams. Hers is a remarkable story. Despite having little money, she bought the bar that later expanded into the club at a time when women in California weren’t even allowed to be bartenders (unless they owned the bar). She wasn’t just a woman in a man’s world, she was a black woman in a white man’s world, and she was also a lesbian.
She did this at a point in the early 70s when black people often found it difficult to even get into ‘white’ bars/clubs, as despite strides in civil rights, restrictive rules around things like ID meant black people were essentially shut out of certain spaces, including many gay spaces.
As a result of who she was and the fact she wanted to create a place that welcomed the black gay community, she faced intimidation from the authorities. Over the years she faced lean times and success, a serious arson attack, before becoming a haven for celebs looking to be left alone, as well as a mecca for a wide variety of LGBT people.
Jewel wasn’t satisfied with that though, becoming a true activist. She helped those dealing with AIDS – including co-founding (alongside her wife) a women’s refuge for those affected by the disease – fought for equality, started up a vegan café and founded a non-profit alternative healing centre.
She is undoubtedly an incredible woman – determined, steadfast and keen to make the world a better place. It’s clear from the documentary that 99% of people in her position would have crumbled long ago, but she soldiers on. While the club has now closed, she certainly hasn’t retired, and you get the impression she probably couldn’t just stop and not do anything.
Click here to watch the trailer for Jewel’s Catch One
The documentary is a great testament to her and her story. As well as interviews with the woman herself, filmed across several years, there are plenty of comments from her friends and family, as well as her clientele, including celebrities such as Sandra Bernhard, Sharon Stone and Bonnie Pointer. They add a little star power, but ultimately it’s the story of Jewel herself, the history she lived through and how she reacted to it that shines through.
The documentary does occasionally have a few issues. Particularly early on, it has a tendency to jump around in time, which makes sense thematically, but means there are moments that feel a little disjointed and where it’s difficult to fully work out exactly when they’re talking about. That quickly settles down though once the documentary becomes more broadly chronological, with director C. Fitz managing to dig out the key points of Jewel’s life and illuminate what they mean.
That’s no mean feat, as you’re talking about the intersection of race, gender, sexuality and a whole lot of tumultuous history. In its 90 minutes Jewel’s Catch One doesn’t have time to totally unpack all these issues, but what it does show is that one person’s indomitable spirit can cut through all this and make a change. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Jewel herself is so humble and self-effacing. She knows she had an impact and is trying to do good, but she doesn’t seem to want endless praise for it, which makes her, and her story, extremely easy to like.
Overall Verdict: An entertaining watch, which manages to illuminate parts of the story of race, gender and sexuality over the last 50 years in the US, through the story of one determined woman and her nightclub.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac