Opens October 7th in New York at the Quad Cinema
AN AMERICAN CIVIL RIGHTS STORY
Mardi Gras, drag royalty and a glittering civil rights revolution–where else could these elements come together but in the city of New Orleans? Interweaving archival footage with contemporary interviews, Tim Wolff’s documentary film The Sons of Tennessee Williams tells the story of New Orleans’ outrageous gay Mardi Gras over five decades and uncovers the history of the earliest civil rights for gay people in the U.S.
In January 1959, during the height of anti-gay laws that criminalized public association for gay people in this country, a group of men in New Orleans decided to throw a Mardi Gras ball of their own. Mardi Gras organizations in New Orleans, called Krewes, are social clubs comprised of members who celebrate the annual Carnival season together. Every Krewe has their own festivities, including parties and parades, usually ending with a formal ball and the coronation of a King and Queen.
In 1962, the first all Gay Krewe was formed, called the Krewe of YUGA or “KY,” when they rented a school cafeteria in the notoriously conservative suburb of Jefferson Parish for their coronation ball. Familiar with police raids, the krewe members knew that the ball would break laws. They made absolutely sure to be in full drag anyway. The police raided the building minutes before the crowning of Queen YUGA IV, alerted by private citizens of cross-dressing men entering the nursery school at night. Krewe members attempted to escape by running into the swamplands adjacent to the school, chased by officers with dogs and flashlights; many were betrayed by their glittering costumes. They were unceremoniously jailed, identified by name in the newspaper and eventually convicted for “disturbing the peace.”
This event marked a significant change in Mardi Gras and gay history as the men quickly worked to secure the right to openly celebrate this important annual holiday, by asking for and receiving a charter from the state of Louisiana to exist with all the rights and privileges given all Carnival organizations, including tax exempt status. They worked with the traditions of Mardi Gras to move gay culture into a public setting by the mid-1960s. By 1969, there were four gay krewes holding yearly extravaganzas at civic venues across the city, making New Orleans the first place in the U. S. where gay and straight came together in large numbers to publicly celebrate gay culture.
The Sons of Tennessee Williams is the result of 15 years of research through 120 hours of archival ball footage, still pictures and interviews from some 20 of the “SONS” themselves, ending with contemporary HD coverage of the Krewe of Armeinius 40th anniversary ball in 2008. We travel through the pathos of 1950s era persecution and arrest to the uncommon freedoms in the decades that followed as the gay krewes’ popularity and political power began to emerge.
A full decade before the Stonewall riots, these men, who are the embodiment of the archetypal “southern bachelor gentleman,” complete with the cast-iron fortitude, worked directly with the public to create an open, accepted gay cultural event. Soon, “society matrons begged for ball tickets from their hairdressers and everyone in New Orleans wanted to go to the ball, gay, straight, even the Mayor of the city!”
Director Tim Wolff says, “When I learned of the great history behind this culture and how it had begun ten years before the liberations caused by Stonewall, I was amazed that no none had heard of these accomplishments outside of New Orleans. There are no timelines of gay history that reflect these victories or this culture. These pioneers had risked everything to participate in the annual festivities of Mardi Gras. They accomplished primary civil rights without protest, without violence and in full drag. Please do whatever you can to promote this valuable history, that it might inspire others in the continuing pursuit of equality for all Americans.”
TIM WOLFF, Director / Writer/ Producer / Editor
“Every once in a while comes a documentary that you just know
“A lively tribute to the historical importance of the homosexual community