At a special double feature screening event at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade theater on Thursday evening, the newly launched MTV Documentary Films presented “Gay Chorus Deep South,” a rare, hopeful look at the future of one of our most divisive social issues.
In response to the 2016 election and a fresh wave of discriminatory anti-LGBTQ laws in the South, over 300 members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir got on a tour bus to the states with the most intolerant policies. They paid their own way and sent all the profits to charity, all for the kinds of reasons you might find in a children’s book or a hippie manifesto: to spread a message of music, love, and acceptance for communities facing discrimination. An ambitious move, but maybe one we could learn something from as a nation.
We follow the group as they sing their way through Mississippi, Tennesse, the Carolinas, and Alabama, staying in local homes and connecting with that mythical creature known as the deep Southerner. Director David Charles Rodrigues treats us to a well-curated selection of stories. Tim, the conductor of the SFGMC, confronts a broken past at a Southern Baptist Church, the same denomination that exiled him and split his family apart. Jimmy, a chorus member, hopes for reconciliation with his conservative father in Mississippi. Ashlé, a trans chorus member, reevaluates her identity along the gender binary. Other characters surface along the way, representing queer youth, allies, and even a MAGA hat-wearing radio host.
Each story is set up with care and perspective. No one escapes humanization in this film. As we listen to Jimmy’s conservative father monologue about his son’s “choices,” we can’t help but smile at the adoration lavished upon the two cartoonish slack-jawed pugs at his feet. Several other Southerners denounce bigotry as the trait of a very loud and vocal group, but one that is definitively in the minority. They promise that love and acceptance exists down here too, but acknowledge there’s a long way to go.
The anecdotes are well-crafted, but can feel like they open and shut too smoothly. Though the chorus members agree that one tour isn’t going to solve their problems, and that no amount of singing will help some people, the documentary sometimes portrays a world cleaner than reality with its “we should all just get along” message.
But even if the thesis of reaching-out-will-help-us-get-along-better doesn’t always feel convincing, the other crux of this film – music has power – is proven a thousand times over. Even if religion-tinted music isn’t your thing, every performance, from the gospel showstoppers to the comedic drag ballads, is moving and often tear-jerking. Maybe the narratives won’t be enough to convince all viewers that the anti-LGBTQ South is made up of complex beings with unique capacities for love and acceptance. But the music, one of humanity’s only universal languages, might.
At a reception after the screening, a member of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir featured in the film, Valeria Scott, proved to us once again the capacity of music to shake the soul with a heart-stopping rendition of “Lawd, How Come Me Heah.”
See if the film is coming to a festival near you this fall. In the meantime, check out the trailer: