Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 7, 2011

The Sons of Tennessee Williams; Elevate

Filed under: Africa,Film,Gay — louisproyect @ 5:51 pm

Although the adjective “inspirational” is one of the most hackneyed in the film reviewer’s vocabulary and hence one that I tend to shirk, I could think of no other word that better describes two new documentaries: “The Sons of Tennessee Williams”, opening today at the Quad in NY, and “Elevate” that opens at the AMC Empire in NY on October 21 and in other major theaters around the country thereafter. The first is about gay men in New Orleans who used Mardi Gras as an opportunity for what amounted to gay pride demonstrations long before Stonewall. The second is about Senegalese high school students who win basketball scholarships to prep schools in the United States. While sharing some of the same dark concerns as “Hoop Dreams” (basketball as a problematic ladder up from poverty) and “Lost Boys of Sudan” (African youth dealing with an alienating white bread American environment), it is instead an uplifting story of true grit and the finest movie I have ever seen about basketball.

Joining “Before Stonewall” and “The Celluloid Closet”, “The Sons of Tennessee Williams” illuminates the efforts of gay people to express themselves when the law and a backward society were against them even much more so than today. The film is structured around old home movies and still photos taken by the men themselves and their reflections on the past. Most are now in their 60s and beyond and obviously thrilled at the idea of telling anybody who will listen that they had nothing to be ashamed of. While Hollywood fiction films still tend to the “gay as tragic” motif, documentaries continue to make the case that gay men and women can live happy and fulfilled lives if the bigots would just leave them in peace.

“The Sons of Tennessee Williams” tells the story of “drag balls” in the early 60s that used the cover of Mardi Gras to allow gay men to express themselves. Even if cross-dressing was not necessarily their “thing”, these occasions were opportunities to implicitly “come out” since it was understood by everybody that they were coming at things from a different angle than the heterosexual men who cross-dressed during Mardi Gras in the same way they might have wore more conventional costumes. Of course, New Orleans being what it is, just about everybody enjoyed getting in rhinestone-studded outfits whether they were gowns or cowboy duds.

The cops generally allowed these “krewes” as they were called some leeway but it was understood that anybody caught in a dress after carnival was over would be arrested. The press notes for the documentary describe the origins of this early foray into gay liberation:

In February 1959, a group of gay men in New Orleans decided to have a Mardi Gras ball of their own. Mardi Gras organizations in New Orleans, called krewes, are social clubs comprised of members who celebrate the season together. Each krewe has their own festivities, including parties and parades, usually ending with a formal ball and the coronation of a King and Queen. Everyone seems to have a krewe of some kind to belong to. A full decade before Stonewall, a gay Carnival krewe was founded. They called it the Krewe of YUGA or “KY”. In 1962, “KY” rented a school cafeteria in the notoriously conservative suburb of Jefferson Parish. Securing such a venue for an all male krewe to hold a Mardi Gras ball would not likely raise suspicion. Most krewes were, in fact, made up of an anonymous all male membership. Various personnel from the venue were present at functions like these, however. This would no longer be a private event. “It was a kindergarten, is what it was.”

Familiar with police raids, the men knew that the 1962 ball would break a few laws. They made absolutely sure to be in full drag anyway. “It was a ball, after all, not bowling night.” The police roared in precisely at coronation time, alerted by private citizens of crossdressing men entering the building 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 while hiding in the dark night and tall grasses of Jefferson Parish. They were taken to jail, identified by name in the newspaper and eventually prosecuted with the charge of “disturbing the peace.” The significance is this. The following year the ball was not raided nor was any subsequent ball in the history of these annual events. By 1969, there were four gay krewes legally chartered by the state of Louisiana as official Mardi Gras organizations, holding yearly extravaganzas at public venues across the city. “Society matrons begged for ball tickets from their hairdressers.” New Orleans was the first place in America where gay and straight people came together to publicly recognize gay culture.

Not only does the film celebrate gay culture, it is a celebration of what makes New Orleans a special place. The film has a perfect title since Tennessee Williams, despite his first name, was the city’s poet laureate. It begins with a quote from Blanche Dubois, from his greatest play “A Streetcar Named Desire”. (Streetcars in New Orleans actually had such names.) When asked by her brother-in-law Mitch whether she was being straight with him, Blanche answers: “Straight? What’s ‘straight’? A line can be straight, or a street. But the heart of a human being?” How true.

“Elevate” begins in Dakar, Senegal at the SEEDS Academy, where young basketball players from across West Africa come to get intensive athletic and academic training. We are introduced to Amadou, Assane, Byago, Dethie and Aziz as they go through the paces on the basketball court and the classroom.

We also see them at home where you can get an idea of domestic life and family relations in West Africa that is unlike anything I have seen in a documentary before. The warmth and solidarity that family members offer the young athletes is one of the film’s most engaging aspects. With so much emphasis in documentaries about war-torn countries like Sudan or Ivory Coast about cruelty and suffering, these scenes are a reminder that there is more to Africa than doom and gloom.

Once the athletes get off their planes and drive to their new schools in the United States, the contrast with Dakar could not be starker. One school has mandatory chapel services that Assane amiably takes part in despite his Muslim faith. After services are finished, he goes back to his room and prays toward Mecca. At the very minute another athlete Aziz is eying a hot dog in his school’s cafeteria during Ramadan, worrying if there is pork in it, the film cuts back to Dakar where it shows his mother preparing a traditional Senegalese dish in a huge kettle. The contrast drawn between America and Senegal throughout the film is not one intended to be judgmental, only to help one understand the psychological adjustment the young protagonists had to make.

And make them they did. The film benefits from having five of the most likable and engaging young people as you can possibly imagine. Wise beyond their years, they have few illusions about making it to the NBA. They see prep school not as a path toward a McMansion and a fleet of cars but rather one that can get them into an American college on a basketball scholarship and then a profession, like medicine or law.

Much of the film consists of locker-room banter, games on the court, sessions between the athletes and coaches or guidance counselors that are ostensibly mundane. But they take on a highly dramatic character since everything the five young heroes are involved with amounts to stepping stones toward a better life. This is a documentary that takes a seemingly routine business—the lives of Senegalese basketball scholarship students in America—and turns it into high drama. Highly recommended!

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