The Sons of Tennessee Williams: Film Review

Genial doc combines extravagance of Mardi Gras drag with an underexposed story of early gay-rights achievements.

Tim Wolff's documentary focuses on Mardi Gras with a story of early gay-rights achievements.

Penning a new chapter in the history of gay-rights efforts, Tim Wolff's The Sons of Tennessee Williams offers Southern grace instead of the in-your-face conflicts of better-known showdowns on the East and West Coasts. A lack of stark drama in the story it tells will keep box-office prospects modest in a niche run, but a likeable combination of fresh perspective and Mardi Gras glamour should ensure warm reception on smaller screens.

Interviewing 20 or so Louisiana men who struggled with mid-century attitudes toward gays, the movie recounts stings and raids in which police would round them up and the "Times-Picayune" would happily publish arrestees' names. Seeing Mardi Gras as the sole occasion on which flamboyance might be tolerated, a group of New Orleanians formed the all-gay Krewe of YUGA, hosting a private ball where men wore drag and played the parts of both King and Queen.

That first ball was raided (providing some amusing tales of "women" who fled, seeking help from nearby families), but the fiasco triggered a campaign for formal recognition of the all-gay Mardi Gras "krewes" -- which soon flourished, years before New York's Stonewall riots. Making good use of vintage photos and other historical material, Wolff captures the vibrancy of their lavish parties, making it easy to understand why local straight socialites started begging for tickets.

Wolff cuts back and forth from reminiscences of the tradition's early days to preparations for a 2008 ball celebrating 40 years of the Armeinius Krewe, which has survived AIDS, Katrina and the graying of its ranks. Here we see the laborious task of turning mountains of sequins, rhinestones and ostrich feathers into outfits a single wearer can hardly maneuver (for one, an 8-foot-wide urban skyline is attached to a man's back), and watch as a friendly group of less-than-svelte gentlemen rehearse choreography commissioned for the anniversary.

"Is it really a civil rights accomplishment for a man to wear a dress at the civic auditorium?" an interviewee asks at one point, acknowledging the spoofy roots of this movement. But for these men, a taste of public acceptance clearly served as welcome respite from police harassment, fratboy violence and familial rejection.

Opened: Oct. 7 (First Run Features)
Production company: Wolffhouse
Director-screenwriter-producer-editor: Tim Wolff
Director of photography: Eric Adkins
No rating, 80 minutes