“The Sons of Tennessee Williams” chronicles “carnival clubs,” or “krewes,” which for many years represented the only public face of homosexuality in New Orleans and, to an extent, the South in general. Tim Wolff’s documentary is a diverting mix of colorful interviewees and footage from one such krewe’s 40th anniversary ball, but it doesn’t probe very deep, having relatively scant political content or narrative shape. Pic opens Oct. 7 in Gotham and Oct. 14 in Los Angeles, signaling modest theatrical visibility before home-format life.
Pic’s early description of its subjects as “pioneers of the earliest gay civil rights in the U.S.” is a bit dubious. Up north, the Mattachine Society was agitating for gay rights nearly a decade before the first, shortlived gay krewe was formed as a parody of straight krewes’ Mardi Gras pageantry. This happened not long after three Tulane U. students were acquitted of murder for “rolling a queer” as their fraternity initiation in 1959, a time when police raids on “deviant” establishments were common, the names of those arrested were published in the local newspaper, and parents typically warned their young away from that infamous vice den, the French Quarter.
When the names of the gay krewe’s members were printed, the group promptly folded. But other clubs gradually sprang up, such as the Krewe of Armeinius (whose 40th ball occupies much screentime), which launched in 1968. Interviewees recall those early years and their own formative ones to the accompaniment of archival photos and footage. Reminiscences leap forward to briefly touch on the community devastation wrought by AIDS and more recently by Hurricane Katrina.
Glimpses of preparations for the Armeinius ball, and their climactic onstage result, reveal spectacular, break-the-bank costumes of as much architectural as sartorial interest. Despite the whimsical representations of a gingerbread man and elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesh, most favor drag glamour over drag camp.
Whether it’s a product of the city’s laid-back, party-hearty nature or a fault of the filmmaking, “Sons” makes for a pleasant sit but doesn’t really have the substance to deliver the aimed-for tenor of inspirational struggle. Interviewees are too many and too briefly heard from for viewers to get very involved in their stories, and at the end, the pic simply peters out, never finding a strong narrative thread or editorial strategy to lift it beyond being a glorified scrapbook. In the annals of modern American gay history, the docu doesn’t make a case for this particular geographic/cultural nexus rating more than a footnote, though in different hands it might have felt weightier.
Packaging is adequate, the soundtrack selection of golden oldies a plus.