When Jewel Thais-Williams opened Jewel’s Catch One in Los Angeles in 1973, she thought she was just opening a nightclub. But over the course of four decades, it served as a safe haven for black LGBT people who faced discrimination in the city’s white gay clubs, a community center effective at influencing political change, a support group for a community impacted by the AIDS crisis, and Madonna’s playground.
Jewel’s Catch One is a documentary that shines a light on the legacy of one of America’s oldest black and queer-owned discos and the life of its owner—entrpreneur and activist Jewel Thais-Williams. Her story and the importance of her nightclub is only just now being written into history after closing its doors on July 18, 2015, but Thais-Williams is credited for creating safe spaces for queer, black, and AIDS impacted communities in LA for over 40 years while facing racism and gender discrimination.
C. Fitz’s documentary briliantly sews together interviews from notable figures and celebrities—Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Sharon Stone, Sandra Bernhard, and Thelma Houston—with historic footage, to tell Thais-William’s story of perseverance, purpose, and prosperity during a time hostile to gay and black people.
“When you hear Jewel’s story, you wonder why doesn’t everyone know her and know what she’s done,” C.Fitz tells NewNowNext. “There’s not a lot out there about her and her story is critical.”
C.Fitz talked with us about creating the documentary, Thais-Williams’s story, and how Ava DuVernay helped the film make its way to Netflix.
What inspired you to make Jewel’s Catch One?
I met Jewel in 2010 when I volunteered to do a two-minute piece on her because she was winning an award. The more that I researched and got to know her and the lives she touched, there was no way I could get it all down to two minutes. And I knew her story was too important not to tell.
What about her story drew you in?
She started a business with four strikes against her: She’s a woman, she’s a lesbian, she’s black, and she was broke. And back then, law enforcement was not kind to LGBT people often raiding gay bars, harassing club owners, and arresting patrons. Jewel never backed down. She thrived in the face of it all. Even after a fire at the club. She rebuilt and built something that meant a lot to her community. And when I spoke to her old customers and employees, I heard how they talked about Jewel. It’s just amazing how one person can make such a big difference in the lives of so many people. Even when she was facing her own addiction and going to rehab, she kept the club open because it was a refuge for so many people who really needed it.
Why do you think Jewel’s story is mostly unknown?
Underrepresentation. Jewel is an interational hero. She’s a leader in a community and she was the voice for the voiceless for decades. During the AIDS crisis, funding wasn’t reaching the black, gay community. People were dying. Jewel stood up and created change. She hosted fundraisers and events with politicians like Maxine Waters and told her what was happening in the communities she served. Marginalized communities rarely have a seat at the table with mainstream media, and smaller, local papers only cover so much. That’s why I’m so thankful for Ava DuVernay and ARRAY. They are shining a light on films by people of color and women and are committed to shining the light on the good.
— C. Fitz (@CFitz_) May 6, 2018
In her GLAAD acceptance speech, Ava shouted you and your film out.
Yes, she said being an activist and being an artist is the same to her and that it’s important to create space for our lives and our work. She told me Jewel’s story is about a hero in a marginalized community and that it’s an important message that should be seen and heard. I’m grateful to ARRAY for helping Jewel’s story reach a larger audience.
What do you hope the audience takes away from your film?
I hope people will be entertained, informed, and inspired by a story that illustrates how one person can truly make a difference. And I hope people will go out and make some change.
Jewel’s Catch One is now available on Netflix.