The Sons of Tennessee Williams tells the story of New Orleans’s gay Mardi Gras from its fledgling origins in the explicitly homophobic ‘50s to today’s equally extravagant, if not as status quo-defying, form. Tim Wolff’s documentary juxtaposes archival ball footage with straightforward interviews with the now elderly queens of yore, some of whom, we learn, had fathers who cheered when Kennedy was assassinated. They reminisce about the pleasures of dressing up as Scarlett O’Hara when they were little proto-gay children and finding a sense of community once a year, when it was legal to cross-dress in New Orleans (their costumes had to, by law, be back in the closet by midnight).
The film stays mostly on the rather safe and familiar surfaces of LGBT history as it attempts to highlight a perhaps not-so-well-known facet of drag-ball culture. While there are threads of authentic cinematic arguments strewn throughout, such as the notion that in New Orleans a child is born into his costume and not just his gender, these are lost amid the pedagogical discussion of familiar subjects in these sorts of films: the Stonewall riots, the surveillance, blackmailing, and harassment of homosexuals, the emergence of a male-centric gay community bonding over lamés, feathers, and rhinestones, and so on. Although the intertitles remind us that, in the late 1950s, public congregation of homosexuals was against the law in all 50 states, a fact that never ceases to nauseate the spirit, the film, considering the flamboyance of its subject matter, delivers its linear timeline of how poorly heterosexuality has managed to police its borders with surprising dullness.
This time-tested project of tracing gayness back to when its shame was so explicitly enforced feels not only passé, and naïve, but mostly unproductive in a post-Judith Butler world in which drag queens are on TV teaching biological women how to better perform womanhood. Instead of pursuing the possibilities of the “carnival” as an inevitably queer, and queering, event, The Sons of Tennessee Williams fixates on the sort of obnoxiously conventional documentary concerns that turns the subjects of history into character-less spokesmen delivering today’s lesson plan.