“Mardi Gras – American symbol of merry making.”
If you ask the Average Joe on the street when and where the gay civil right movement began, most folks would scoff and say Stonewall, 1969. However, Tim Wolff’s latest documentary would have Joe believing that the gay rights movement indeed came in like a lamb and has been roaring loudly in the quest for social equality ever since.
The Sons of Tennessee Williams’ journey down memory lane travels through some of the most colorful quarters of New Orleans. One part Project Runway on LSD, one part New Orleans tradition, and two parts gay heritage lesson, The Sons of Tennessee Williams is a playful and proud documentary work.
Provided as bookends, as well as through the film, is the preparation and eminent coronation of the 40th Armeinius King and Queen from 2008, the conduit into the present and a testament to how long the characters in this story have been a part of this world. The journey to the past begins with archive footage in 1958, New Orleans, when the common laws across the country targeted homosexuals.
Crimes against gays went unreported and were tacitly tolerated by police. And in New Orleans, Daily, the Times/Picayume Newspaper printed the names of individuals charged with “attempted crimes against nature.” Discharge, dismissal or disgrace was the inevitable fates for anyone whose name was found on that list.
And yet, with the criminalization of homosexual behavior, in New Orleans, there was a unique safe harbor for “gentlemen bachelors.” All those interviewed for this film attest that New Orleans is a culture where entire family costumed regularly. As such, Mardi Gras was the only place where gay people can gather safely and publicly. So it would make sense that Mardi Gras would be at the center of how gay men could eventually, legitimately gather and celebrate.
A Krewe is a social club comprised of members who celebrate the aunnua Mardi Gras festivities together (esp. in New Orleans.) The typical events slated for every Mardi Gras krewe was a parade, a ball and a coronation – at minimum. January 1959 saw the first gay krewe; they called themselves “Krewe of Yuga” aka “YK.” By 1961 half a dozen gay krewes began to form charters “for a carnival club” to gain legitimacy in society (Petronius 1961, Ganymede 1965, Apollo 1971, Krewe of Amon-Ra 1966 and Armeinius 1968.) The gay krewes of New Orleans experienced an unprecedented level of inclusion by formalizing their associations under the institutional umbrella of Mardi Gras.
It is an intriguing thought to consider that the first real steps of gay civil movement was not the group of gay men who exchanged punches with police, but rather the group of gay men wore dressed in drag on New Orleans’ Canal Street.
Wolff’s The Sons of Tennessee Williams is a documentary with humor and heart with ut taking itself too seriously. It is a reminder that heritage is a tapestry of tales and experiences. The film itself is told in a collage of images and voices, ghosts of the past, spirits of the elders- a devise that serves this film well. It is a wonderful illustration of how gays and straights have always been able to get along, once we agree to celebrate our difference instead of fear them.
The Sons of Tennessee Williams is available through First Run Features.