Since 1959, gay men in New Orleans have been participating in their own Mardi Gras krewes, complete with parades and balls. The first openly gay krewes—The Krewe Of Yuga, a.k.a. KY, and The Krewe Of Petronius—were inspired in part by the acquittal of three college kids who beat a homosexual man to death. For decades, gay New Orleanians had been enjoying the safety-in-numbers freedom of The French Quarter, and had been able to cross-dress and be flamboyant during Mardi Gras, just not in any organized way. In their early days of forming krewes, they endured police raids, and saw their names printed in the newspapers. But they kept gathering, year after year, until the law stopped hassling them, and the city at large began looking forward to what the queer krewes would bring to New Orleans’ annual bash.
Tim Wolff’s documentary The Sons Of Tennessee Williams covers the preparations for a recent Mardi Gras, as members of different krewes pull together to make elaborate costumes and decide who’ll be the king and queen of the various events. Between the AIDS crisis and Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans gay community doesn’t have the strength it once had, so the remaining krewes share members and resources. And while Wolff films them, they share their stories about what New Orleans was like in the ’50s when these men came of age, and how the climate changed so much throughout the ’60s that by 1973, Harry Connick Sr. was actively seeking gay support when he ran for district attorney (and won) against Jim Garrison.
The Sons Of Tennessee Williams takes a simple—maybe too simple—approach, mixing archival footage with talking-head interviews and shots of people sewing sequins and applying makeup. And ostensibly, the movie is one long coming-out anecdote, divided among a dozen or so different people. But the significance of that group anecdote—from the message of unity to the way Mardi Gras gave some gay New Orleanians a way to explain their lives to their parents—can’t be overstated, either for its impact on human rights or its power to move.