Review: The Sons of Tennessee Williams

For a film about gay men who love to dress up in outrageous costumes, The Sons of Tennessee Williams is surprisingly bland. Tim Wolff’s documentary exploring the history of gay Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans offers occasionally moving testimony from those who suffered under the homophobic prejudice of the 1950s and ‘60s. But despite its imaginative title, the film is too unfocused and lackadaisical to make much of an impact.


Making the fairly dubious argument that the New Orleans movement represented the earliest civil rights for gay people in the country, the film traces the development of gay krewes, or private social clubs composed of members celebrating the annual Carnival season. The first, organized in 1959, was inspired by the acquittal of three Tulane University students for the murder of a gay man.


Subject to police harassment and public condemnation, that club soon disbanded. But eventually others sprung up to take its place, and the social climate gradually thawed to the point where they were able to operate relatively openly. One such club is profiled at length, with interviews with many of its members recalling their past struggles interwoven with archival footage and scenes of the extensive preparations for their 40th anniversary ball.


What will no doubt be a highlight for many viewers are the displays of the incredibly elaborate outfits worn by the attendees, which more closely resemble parade floats than costumes.


Neither informative enough to serve as a valuable history lesson nor entertaining enough to compare with, say, the similar Paris is Burning (1990), The Sons of Tennessee Williams is destined to be a minor footnote in the ever expanding canon of gay and lesbian-themed documentaries.