Dropping in on the Mississippi Bible Belt, "Small Town Gay Bar" shows that, off the beaten track, the struggle for visibility and dignity is in its infancy. The film could be better organized and fails to probe the social and economic realities of its subjects. But it should find a responsive audience in specialized theatrical and cable showings.
Since queer culture went primetime in the U.S., it might be tempting to assume that the community support and political infrastructures accessible to gay men and women in major capitals are available nationwide. Dropping in on the Mississippi Bible Belt, “Small Town Gay Bar” shows that, off the beaten track, the struggle for visibility and dignity is in its infancy. The film could be better organized and fails to probe the social and economic realities of its subjects. But it should find a responsive audience in specialized theatrical and cable showings.As the self-explanatory title suggests, Malcolm Ingram’s docu focuses on two isolated gay bars in Mississippi: Rumors, in Shannon (pop. 1,657), and the wild, anything-goes Crossroads in the woods outside Meridian (pop. 39,968), which shuttered two years ago and was replaced by the tamer Different Seasons. Ingram’s interview subjects offer candid accounts of living with fear and oppression — forced to keep their sexuality under wraps in the workplace and often with their families, battling attacks and public exposure from the religious right. The film also underlines the close alignment of racism and homophobia within the social prejudices of the South. Deftly enlisting tart-tongued Tupelo, Miss., drag queen Alicia Stone, the director assembles a brief history of rural gay bars that have come and gone, frequently the victims of stigmatizing Christian Coalition crackdowns. Redneck hypocrisy is exposed via the hate campaign of an activist preacher who believes that notions of all-embracing Divine love only “fan the flames of fag lust.” The most unsettling insights are delivered in an account of a Bay Minette, Ala., man brutally beaten, strangled, stabbed and partially decapitated over several hours before his body was dumped and set on fire. The victim’s brother continues to be subjected to anti-gay slurs in the wake of the killing. Ingram illustrates how gay bars function as oases of acceptance and alternative families for his good-humored, enduring subjects. One can assume that low income, limited education and employment opportunities, and the desire to remain close to family prevent the docu’s subjects from migrating to comparatively friendly Deep South burgs like Memphis, Jackson or Birmingham. But, Ingram misses an opportunity here to ask his interviewees why they choose to stay in such hostile environments and get their answers on the record. Despite its indecisive multiple endings and a certain randomness in its use of stylistic touches like split screen, wipes and occasional switches to B&W, the modest docu is tidily packaged with an appropriate music selection.