As a native Southerner (I was born and mostly raised in Charlotte, North Carolina), I have developed a predisposition to protect and defend entertainment and the media's portrayals of that oft-maligned region, even if it often provides reasons to deserve maligning. Typically this means personal apoplexy when actors bastardize accents or films set their stories in locales where the heat index is considered higher than the median IQ. But it also means highlighting films and filmmakers who treat the South with intelligence, and further, who celebrate its inconsistencies and contradictions with sensitivity.
Paige Williams' Mississippi Queen is, superficially, a portrait of the lingering ignorance and intolerance of Southerners to homosexuality, manifested through tradition and religion. But it's also a surprisingly intimate and thoughtful portrait of one woman's efforts to investigate and understand that intolerance, and her attempt to reconcile her lifestyle with loved ones who still haven't come to terms with the fact that it isn't merely a "choice."
Returning to Mississippi to film a relative's wedding, Williams reconnects with her parents, who never understood Paige's lifestyle and subsequently started the state's only ex-gay ministry after she left home. Interviewing her mother and father, as well as a cross section of local community figures and religious locals with varying opinions about homosexuality, Williams slowly weaves together a tapestry of opinions, reactions and insights about the history and culture of the South, in the process offering real perspective on her personal past, the troubled present for Southern gays, and the future of Paige's relationship with the rest of her family.
The film immediately reminds audiences of North Carolina documentarian Ross McElwee's Bright Leaves, which similarly connected pieces of Southern history with a tale about his family's travails. But Williams' personal struggle to reconnect with or at least reconcile her estrangement with her parents is imminently more powerful, not only because of the film's hot-button subject matter, but because of her amazing delicacy and respectfulness dealing with a number of interviewees who don't understand her lifestyle, and don't particularly want to.
Certainly a hellfire-and-brimstone minister is the most adversarial of Williams' subjects, but even a handful of "ex-gays" – homosexuals who relinquished their lifestyles out of religious obligation – suggest that gay "impulses" or behavior is to be suppressed and repressed. But while the film seems generally unwilling to challenge these viewpoints - a shortcoming that will likely outrage more liberal sensibilities – its tenderness to even some of her interviewees' most emptily rhetorical criticisms of homosexuality serves as a testament to Williams' understanding of the South, and moreover, an emphasis on her search for answers rather than some perceived or actual moral high ground.
That said, she does include footage from a number of participants, most notably Dr. Paula Barrett, who manages to rejoin virtually every religious or moral objection offered by her counterparts. But if the film otherwise feels limited in its efforts to expose and challenge the condemnation of homosexuality in the South, Mississippi Queen is no less striking for making its focus the real, non-rhetorical relationship between Paige and her parents, who seem desperately to want to love her despite the programming of decades of prejudice.
Ultimately, Mississippi Queen succeeds because it carries no automatic expectations of tolerance, but hopes to develop them, delicately, and not only at a cultural but deeply personal level. Indeed, the majority of the documentaries I've seen in recent years about the subject of homosexuality seem to be preaching to the choir, championing liberated thought before the first frame unspools, and vilifying anyone who believes differently. Williams' film proves that people can have open hearts even if they have closed minds, and that good things can come out of the South even when they seem to highlight the bad.