In his new documentary, The Sons of Tennessee Williams, Tim Wolff details the development and continued success of the vibrant gay krewe culture in New Orleans. Mardi Gras krewes (organizations that host balls and parades) are a long held tradition; what makes the story of the first gay krewes so fascinating is that their inception came about during a nascent period for gay rights in America, a time when, as the film stresses, an individual could be arrested for appearing in drag outside of Mardi Gras celebrations, when any professed homosexuality might be enough to ruin a life.
The film pairs illuminating archival footage of the Mardi Gras festivities with testimony from gay krewe members who reflect at length on the sense of community fostered by the drag balls. Of course, this means plenty of shots of gorgeous, painstakingly assembled costumes. For instance, Bill McCarthy, 2008’s captain of the Krewe of Petronius (the first gay Mardi Gras krewe), describes his royalty train as “a huge Oriental rug” with about five hundred appliqués. The costume he models at the film’s conclusion is massive and looks as if it might explode, sprinkling the room with sequins and feathers.
Wolff wisely emphasizes Mardi Gras’ significance to all New Orleanians, suggesting the legendary festival was the perfect avenue by which gays could strengthen their visibility. As drag ball veteran George Roth recalls, Mardi Gras was a “monumental” time for locals, and parents commonly dressed their children in costume—early inspiration for future drag monarchs. By favorably acknowledging the entire population’s zeal for Mardi Gras pageantry, Wolff avoids treating his topic as an “us vs. them” scenario. Better still, charming anecdotes such as a former mayor’s attempt to score an invitation to a drag ball serve as a welcome counterbalance to the obviously grimmer—but undoubtedly necessary—stories of police raids and AIDS fatalities.
At a relatively brief eighty minutes, the film could have afforded to explore the krewe scene’s impact on a wider swath of the LGBT community. Granted, its title speaks to Wolff’s intended focus, but it might have been revelatory to hear from a lesbian or anyone who identifies as queer to some extent, in addition to the already insightful interviews with gay men. Still, The Sons of Tennessee Williams remains an enlightening look at a triumphant piece of LGBT history and an affirmative reminder of the potential for civil rights wherever they’re needed.