In October 2017, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus celebrated its 40th season by touring for a week across America’s Bible Belt, promoting love and acceptance via concerts in states with some of the nation’s most discriminatory anti-LGBTQ laws. One’s first reaction might be: Good luck with that.
But as depicted in the stirring, warm-hearted documentary “Gay Chorus Deep South,” which swiftly follows chorus leader-conductor Tim Seelig and his chorale as they perform for large, enthusiastic audiences in Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and the Carolinas, the group’s luck held out.
Despite occasional protesters and naysayers (that we see, anyway), the chorus, which was accompanied by the largely African American — and one-third gay — Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, seemed successful in spreading their positive messages while singing lots of beautiful gospel and spiritual music. They don’t perform “Kumbaya,” but they might as well.
Still, given that the tour was reportedly a kind of activist response to the divisive 2016 election and its troubling impact on LGBTQ+ Americans (“We’re not going to get anywhere by singing to our own people!”), the film’s director, David Charles Rodrigues (he co-wrote with editor Jeff Gilbert), has taken a mainly upbeat, generous, inspirational approach.
That several profiled chorus members originally hail from or near some of the tour’s more restrictive, less welcoming states lends the movie a bittersweet quality.
For singer and cancer patient Jimmy White, his return to his native Mississippi (where HB 1523, America’s most extreme anti-LGBTQ law, is in effect) and reunion with his estranged, homophobic father has a somewhat muted, if amiable, result. Unfortunately, we never learn if Jimmy and his dad truly rekindled their relationship.
Then there’s Steve Huffines, chairman of the SFGMC’s board of directors, who calls his former Tennessee high school “the place where my life turned to hell.” Despite that and a troubled history with his unaccepting, now-deceased parents, he still advocates for kindness among those who disagree.
Meanwhile, the forthright Seelig, a former Southern Baptist minister, disturbingly recounts how he was essentially run out of town — and separated from his then-wife and their children — by his Texas megachurch when he came out as gay. But any subsequent details of his trauma, legal or paternal, go unexplored.
Seelig’s tour-stop appearance on a conservative Tennessee radio program nets some unexpected results, though frankly, the show’s outwardly genial and equitable hosts are let off a bit easy. Although Seelig was there to “build bridges,” it would have been good to see him more forcefully challenge some of the more extreme views that clearly power the station’s airwaves.
Other intriguing LGBTQ+ voices here include SFGMC member Ashlé Blow, a drag performer transitioning to female; Malaysia Walker, the former head of the ACLU’s trans chapter in Jackson, Miss.; and then-Rep. Patricia Todd, Alabama’s first out gay legislator.
A high point: the San Francisco chorus and the Oakland choir crossing the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., singing “We Shall Overcome.” It’s a scene that resonates on so many levels.
There’s much to recommend here — emotionally, sociopolitically, musically — and it’s heartening to see greater openness to LGBTQ+ folks than outsiders might expect; compassion, grace and humor are in abundant supply. If only the film had dug more deeply and aggressively into the virulent religious and political forces that have enabled Southern inhospitality toward LGBTQ+ and other diverse groups to persist.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica