Queen of the Deuce (2023) [Make Believe Film Festival 2024]

There’s nothing better than a great documentary and “Queen of the Deuce” manages to be one of the best I’ve seen this year. Valerie Kontakos’ biography about NYC figure Chelly Wilson is one of the more excellent documentaries I’ve seen that covers an array of topics from family, LGBTQ politics, and the ever lasting effects of the holocaust. More so it’s a brilliant time capsule of the Deuce, 42nd Street in New York which, at one time, was considered a virtual breeding ground of violence, sex, drugs and all other kinds of depravity.

New York in the sixties and seventies was a terrifying place to inhabit but Chelly Wilson managed to make it her own, by not only befriending a community, but also embracing her massive family. I’d admittedly never heard of Chelly Wilson until now, but she is summed up as a “Christmas Celebrating Jewish Grandma” who also ate Greek food. She was a consistent buyer of various properties in New York, including a very notable gay porn theater. She so happened to live in a large apartment upstairs from said theater, and through this avenue she created an engaging and loving community of various characters and personalities, all of whom adored her.

Wilson’s life is recalled mainly through recorded interviews with her, as well as anecdotes from her grandchildren, surviving best friends, and her children. Through it all it’s a story that is bittersweet as it touches upon the sheer thrilling ride it was growing up with and around Ms. Wilson, as well as enduring the pain she suffered from surviving through the holocaust, and the realization of her sexuality which she kept a well guarded secret for most of her life. Director Kontakos manages to successfully capture the essence of 42nd street in its grimiest, featuring video and photos of blocks of porn theaters and seedy clubs.

They’re juxtaposed with modern interviews in front of the same spots now merely cellphone stores and sanitary pharmacies. Despite the under current of sadness, Kontakos and her group approach this topic with great humor and some truly entertaining stories that I wanted more of. It’s a shame the movie is barely eighty minutes in length as I could have sat through three hours of tales of Chelly Wilson.

The Make Believe Film Festival screens exclusively in person at the Erickson Theatre, Northwest Film Forum, and the Grand Illusion Cinema from March 21st through 26th.