In my review of the exquisite ball culture documentary Paris is Burning I mentioned that New Orleans’s queer bounce scene deserves its own myth-making documentary, especially in light of those two subcultures’ remarkable similarities. It turns out that New Orleans already has its de facto version of Paris is Burning in The Sons of Tennessee Williams (not that a “sissy bounce” doc wouldn’t’ still be an essential historical document). Chronicling 50 years of gay Mardi Gras culture in New Orleans, The Sons of Tennessee Williams is a priceless archive of an LGBTQ subculture that amazes merely by existing. To think that the footage, photography, and history detailed here was ever recorded in the first place is incredible, given the danger it would’ve put its pre-Stonewall subjects into, not to mention the successive physical damage decades of hurricanes would later pose. It’s a thorough, definitive work that makes almost any attempt to follow up on or retell its story redundant. If you’re at all interested in gay Mardi Gras tradition in New Orleans, The Sons of Tennessee Williams is the only logical place to begin.
The film splits its time between documenting the current state of the last two remaining gay Mardi Gras krewes, The Krewe of Petronius & The Krewe of Aremeinius, and constructing an oral history of those two social clubs’ storied past. The more reflective, anthropological segments of the film fascinate in a more unique way than the up-to-date check-in. Elderly gay men describe in detail the peril of growing up queer in the American South before the civil rights movements of the 1960s. In a time where homosexual public association was explicitly illegal, Mardi Gras stood as the one day a year when gay men could legally gather in a public space. In the face of ridicule, violence, and police harassment (under the vice cops’ crackdown on “crimes against Nature”), gay men began forming their own social structures by gathering in certain French Quarter bars as safe havens.
Eventually, this subculture craved legitimacy and a break from the secretive, dangerous nature of cruising undercover and sought official, legal status of a traditional Mardi Gras krewe. This urge was likely born of the simple desire to gather in celebration and to join the pageantry of traditional Mardi Gras balls, but it also saw a marginalized group bonding together to form a strong political voice. And since the formation of The Krewe of Petronius occurred before The Stonewall Riots, the film convincingly posits gay Mardi Gras krewes as “the earliest civil rights for gays” on record. It’s a story that isn’t told as often or as loudly as it should be and this film offers the rare treat of hearing directly from the mouths of the men who lived it and survived to tell the tale.
As rough as some of its subjects’ backstory can be, The Sons of Tennessee Williams is largely a celebration. These men survived societal persecution, the AIDS crisis, and Hurricane Katrina with their numbers dwindled, but their traditions unscathed. Although the modern check-in portion of the documentary is somewhat less compelling than its central history lesson, it’s still an uplifting reassurance that gay Mardi Gras culture is still alive & intact. It’s even had enough time to grow into a venerable institution, joining the old-fashioned pageantry of other krewes’ ball traditions and inspiring straight people & politicians to beg for an invite to exclusive social events that were once considered a disgrace by “polite society”.
I do think that The Sons of Tennessee Williams is an essential historical document that should be seen by as wide of an audience as possible, but I’ll also admit that being a local made it strike a particular chord with me (as it must also have with documentarian Tim Wolff). I live down the street from The Krewe of Aremeinius’s headquarters. I’ve personally taken Polaroids of some of the costumes on display in the film on Mardi Gras Day in The French Quarter [included below]. Seeing 1940s footage of homemade costumes on Canal Street fills me with a certain hometown pride that might not translate as powerfully to outside audiences, etc. The Sons of Tennessee Williams is as much of a celebration of New Orleans culture along the lines of the classic Les Blanc doc Always for Pleasure as it is a gay culture landmark akin to Paris is Burning. It’s a thoroughly New Orleans story that deserves to be told around the world instead of the way it’s been locked away & forgotten. I urge anyone interested in gay Mardi Gras tradition to seek it out immediately.