Queen of the Deuce

Queen of the Deuce Review

A few minutes in, one realizes that Queen of the Deuce is not your average portrait documentary. It has a much more intricate purpose. Not only does this biography about Chelly Wilson build a vivid portrait of her larger-than-life personality but it charts the rags to riches rise of this legendary pioneer of the New York City porn industry in the 1970’s. Filmmaker Valerie Kontakos is wonderfully assured in her deft unpacking of this multifaceted tale as she unravels the larger picture of this woman’s overriding devotion to love and family despite all adversity.

Greek born Chelly Wilson was a renegade right from the outset, the tomboy in a small Jewish community who even had a male alter ego. After her beloved father forced her to marry, she soon realised that the rise of the Nazi party would mean disaster for family and neighbours. But they simply would not listen.  Safely stowing away her four-year-old daughter with a dear non-Jewish family friend, and with her son taken away to Israel by her now ex husband, she escaped on the last boat out of the country. She arrived in America with five dollars in her pocket and brokered her way into becoming a woman of her own means. Eventually, she stumbled into the world of cinema and came to own a half dozen porn theatres in the Times Square area known as The Deuce.

Kontakos’ filmic strategy brilliantly conjures a spell over this tale as she moves beyond her film’s basic talking heads framework to extend the impact of Queen of the Deuce. She folds in archival footage from Wilson’s past, including family photos, along with expressive animated sequences that enliven the memories shared by the various voices. Friends and family recall this woman with great affection but also, quite charmingly, a modicum of fear. Most fascinating of all is the voice of Wilson, recorded by her grandkids, as she expounds upon her experiences. The editing is key here, taut but lively, fitting for such a complicated but enchanting subject.

Queen of the Deuce is not just a layered story of ground-breaking courage. More importantly it is a portrait of one loud-mouthed, big-hearted woman who fought to keep her family close. She was a fierce defender of her birth family, but she extended her generosity to anyone in the community who needed her. Her porn industry empire attracted a band of outsiders and often she welcomed them into her home, her heart and even her bed. Chelly Wilson was, among other things, a maverick in the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

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The true genius of Queen of the Deuce is how one woman’s life story opens up into a multitude of perspectives, allowing all the voices in her family to share in this portrait of the immigrant experience. Not only that, but the film also becomes an odyssey, and fittingly, Chelly Wilson’s accomplishments become the stuff of legends. Never has the phrase the truth is stranger than fiction rung truer.

Queen of the Deuce is screening June 3 as a part of this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival.



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