Malcolm Ingram is a Canadian filmmaker whose claim to fame is his documentary Small Town Gay Bar (2006). It was a profile of the gay bars and clubs in northern Mississippi. It focused a lot on Rick Gladish, who was the owner of Rumors, the gay bar in Shannon, Miss. A chunk of it was also about lamenting the loss or lack of places like Rumors where members of the LGBTQ community could gather and honestly express themselves in a public establishment or space. That 2006 movie was done in the wake of the 2004 election in which gay rights, specifically same-sex marriage, were a big issue. In the decade or so since, there have been some significant advancements in gay rights, but a lot of people see the 2016 election and its aftermath as a halt to the forward momentum that gay rights had. The environment isn’t exactly the same, but it seems ripe for Ingram to revisit this idea of homosexuality and related issues in the so-called Bible Belt or the American South.
This film is, in effect, a sequel to Small Town Gay Bar. The difference is that instead of northern Mississippi, the focus is on southern Mississippi. Ingram spends some time in Hattiesburg and Biloxi, which are the two largest towns in the Magnolia State. He spends the most time in Biloxi, which is the second largest town below Interstate 10 or I-10. Technically, the area is called the Gulf Coast because it lies along the Gulf of Mexico. People refer to it as “below the I-10.” The culture is slightly different because it is a coastal area and it’s less than two hours away from New Orleans in Louisiana, which this film shows. But essentially Mississippi is still Mississippi.
It’s interesting because this film isn’t really about homophobia as it is about other things. Ingram’s previous feature really dealt with homophobia directly, particularly in its analysis of the Westboro Baptist Church that was protesting in the area. However, the only time this film touches upon homophobia is briefly when Ingram mentions Mississippi’s H.B. 1523, also known as the Religious Liberty Act. It’s a law that allows discrimination against LGBTQ people in the state. Ingram doesn’t really delve into it. He simply mentions it and then quickly moves on.
There are really only two issues that get any kind of depth here. The first is transphobia. Ingram interviews a transgender person in Biloxi and spends several minutes of the film really underscoring the fear and real danger that transgender people face. The other issue delved here is that of racism, racism inside and outside the LGBTQ community. Ingram sets the stage for this issue with his choice of music. Two of the three major songs that he chooses for the soundtrack are by African-American musicians singing about race. The first is “Ball of Confusion” by The Temptations. The second is “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone. The third song is “Black and White” by Three Dog Night, which is a predominantly white, rock band from the 1970’s, but that specific song was about racism and was in response to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.
There is then a significant amount of time dedicated to Shawn Perryon, an African-American person who is the owner of the only LGBT club in Hattiesburg. Perryon is also organizing what’s called the “Unapologetic Black Gay Pride,” an event that’s meant to promote unity among the black community and the black LGBTQ community. Even when Ingram is talking about the dangers that transgender people face like murder, the majority of the murders are of black transgender people. Ingram’s film even spends a good amount on Hurricane Katrina, a storm that devastated the Gulf Coast, especially black people in New Orleans.
The section here though that talks about Hurricane Katrina focuses on the destruction in Biloxi, centering on the only gay bar there called Just Us Lounge. Lynn Koval, a white middle-age lesbian, owns that lounge. We hear from her friends and family who are mostly white. Those mostly white people talk about the hurricane’s destruction. We don’t really hear from black people who experienced Katrina. The film is mostly from Koval’s point-of-view, but overlooking the racial disparity in the losses due to Katrina both in property and lives is odd, but possibly purposeful. Yet, later in the documentary, Ingram seems to almost pit Koval against Perryon at least on the issue of how black people are perceived.
The issue is made clear with regard to an event in Biloxi known as “Black Spring Break.” The official name is Biloxi Black Beach Weekend. It’s a few days where college-age people can party on the coast and near the water. The reaction from other locals that we see via news footage is one thing, but Ingram purposefully shows us Koval’s reaction and perception of it, as opposed to Perryon’s reaction and perception of events catering exclusively to black people.
It also makes for an interesting contrast to what Perryon is trying to do as opposed to what Koval is trying to do, and not just along racial lines. What Koval is trying to do, as this film was being made in 2017, is put together the first annual Gulf Coast LGBT+ Pride in Biloxi. There have been gay pride events happening all over the country for decades. The first pride event in New Orleans, for example, began in 1971. Smaller towns like Biloxi are often decades behind where most cities are in terms of gay rights or expressions. Biloxi is certainly over 45 years behind where even its neighboring city, The Big Easy, is.
As mentioned, Perryon is also trying to start her own gay pride event, an “Unapologetic Black Gay Pride” event. It’s an interesting contrast to see Perryon organize that event, as opposed to Koval organize hers. Koval seems a million times more stressed. It’s not clear, but Koval’s event seems bigger and more costly, whereas Perryon’s event could be viewed as a glorified, family BBQ. Specifics about the size and scope of both events aren’t laid out in detail. Supposedly, those things don’t matter because the ultimate point is to create something where gay people can congregate and feel hopeful about the future.
One last point to note is in the buildup to the first ever Gulf Coast LGBT+ Pride event. Ingram does a good job of establishing dramatic tension over whether or not the event will even occur. One of the tensions is the arrival of Tropical Storm Cindy, a storm that isn’t as bad as Hurricane Katrina but one that certainly is a threat. The thing to note though is that as people are watching news coverage of the pending storm, we see CBS News reporter David Begnaud on television. I’m not sure if Ingram just happened to catch that particular news reporter by accident or if Ingram intentionally inserted that news clip of Begnaud. For those not familiar, Begnaud is gay. He came out publicly in the summer of 2018, which was after Ingram filmed this documentary but the magic of editing could have allowed him to insert the clip of Begnaud in post-production.
Other than that, I would conclude that Biloxi wasn’t the only place lacking in pride events for longer than it probably should have. On Saturday, June 1, the first Delaware Pride Parade will occur in downtown Dover. The First State has had Pride festivals going back to the late 90’s, but this will be the first ever parade, which has always been a signature event in many gay pride celebrations in cities like New York and Los Angeles, so it’s encouraging to see these steps forward even in trying or divisive times.
Not Rated but contains some nudity, language, alcohol use and smoking.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 29 mins.
Available June 11 on all digital platforms, as well as satellite and cable providers.