Queen of the Deuce: An unconventional tale of the American Dream

2 June 2023 / by Karen Young
Queen of the Deuce: An unconventional tale of the American Dream

This year’s 31st  Toronto Jewish Film Festival takes place on June 1st-11 both virtually and in person. The festival spotlights stories of the Jewish people and communities around the world. Amongst this year’s Programmers’ Picks is Queen of the Deuce directed by Valerie Kontakos. This film tells the story of Chelly Wilson, who after WWII, came to America to start a new life which led her to become a trailblazing entrepreneur in the porn industry.

The film featured family members of Wilson and other former members of the porn cinema industry and workers of 42nd street in New York City, which is  known as “the deuce.” The film shows us a complex portrait of “the Queen” of 42nd street herself, Chelly Wilson. She reigned over her porn cinema empire in New York’s Time Square between the 1960s and 1970s. The film highlighted her reign in a male-dominated industry, but also showed her family’s backstory before she came to the United States. When Chelly began acquiring movie theatres in New York, she hoped to promote Greek culture and screened Greek films. Since those screenings did not make a lot of money, her colleagues suggested screening Adult films. This results in her tapping in on an unexpected market and with her entrepreneurial skills, started her empire.

The storytelling is enriched by archival footage and pictures from Wilson’s family and the porn cinema empire. The film also recreated some stories through animation in a sort of adult-animated-show art style, which added to the mystique of her character. Part of the documentary included old audio recordings of Chelly and I wished there were more moments with those recordings. Hearing the stories from her family members made me wish we could hear more from Chelly directly, especially when there is archival audio and video available. However, I do understand if her family members wish to keep some of Chelly’s archival footage and audio recordings to themselves.

There was a tonal switch between the arcs of Wilson’s pre-WWII life and her post porn industry life, which painted a portrait of a complex character that we may never know the full story of.  Overall, the film really showed the resilience and unconventional way of someone who lived the American dream. 

Queen of the Deuce will have an in-person screening on Saturday, June 3rd at 9:15pm at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. In-person guests include Producer Ed Barrelveld  and David Bourla, the grandson of Chelly who was also in the film. Tickets are available here. I recommend this film to anyone who is interested in seeing a story of someone who lived and embodied the American dream in her own unconventional way.