New Orleans’ Gay Ball Culture, For the Record, in The Sons of Tennessee Williams


Not until the final minutes of Tim Wolff’s The Sons of Tennessee Williams does the documentary come to life. As images of an over-the-top gay ball fill the screen, we hear the voice of an elderly gay man. He worries that gains made by the LGBT community during the past four decades are vulnerable to the bigotries of politicians and voters, and that many young queer folk—unaware of the blood that has been shed and the lives that have been lost to bring the community this far—take too much for granted. The passion in his voice unfortunately is not matched in the rest of the film, a tedious exercise in filling in historical blanks through exhausted tropes. Focusing on New Orleans’s largely white gay-ball culture and its origins as a spin-off of Mardi Gras, Wolff maps out how gays living in the Big Easy coalesced into a community years before Stonewall. The story is drawn largely through personal anecdotes fleshed out with old newsreels, plus the interviewees’ home movies and photos. But the overly familiar coming-out tales, stories of police brutality, and outlining of socially sanctioned gay bashing, while important for the historical record, have been told so often elsewhere that they’ve lost their ability to illuminate.

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