The title of Gay Chorus Deep South might be deceptive. Despite a couple of light-hearted references, this documentary isn’t a RuPaul’s Drag Race live concert. This is a political film that aims to make a profound impact from its opening shots. Its focus is the hostility in some Southern states towards the LGBTQ community, which seems to have been cemented in recent elections and law changes. However, it’s also about the love and support that the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (who are touring these traditionally conservative states on their Lavender Pen tour) offers its members, and as well as exploring national politics, the film investigates personal stories, too.
The film, anchored by the tour, takes us through stops in the Bible Belt – Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, North and South Carolina – but also branches out from performance footage to different foci along the way: a choir member’s fractious relationship with his religious father, a trans women’s experience as a member of the choir, and choirmaster Tim Seelig‘s past as he lived in denial as a Southern Baptist pastor. Each strand is given sensitive attention and helps highlights many of the film’s central themes: discrimination, acceptance, and love.
One of the core elements, of course, is the music itself. After a moving opening rendition, the film is intersected with rousing and beautiful performances that highlight the talents of the chorus while also lifting the emotional impact of the film to a powerful level. And the power of music is a key message here. It becomes clear how the choir has served as a beacon for young LGBTQ audience members, as well as a motivation for participants living with AIDS. References are also made to gospel music during the civil rights movement of the 60s and these parallels are drawn throughout, particularly in an impactful scene in the historic town of Selma as the choir march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The story of a choir tour is only one aspect of Gay Chorus. It’s the story of what it is to be “the other” in a close-minded society. It’s also the story of how religious freedom is not the same thing as having the right to discriminate freely. It is a strong and affecting political documentary that moves and inspires.