Socks on Fire is a anthem dedicated to making sure the South is seen as more than its nostalgia. Bo McGuire’s charming and challeging documentary shows there’s more to the South than you know, and much more to its inhabitants.
This interview is part of our “Outfest 2021” coverage. Be sure to check out the other articles and keep an eye out for new content!
“How do you run a fire without giving away the flame?” In the press kit for Socks on Fire, writer, director and producer Bo McGuire says, “As a queer Southerner, I’ve learned to celebrate paradox. I don’t know what else to do with the deep affection I hold for one of the most historically complex corners of our United States. Instead of positioning myself against a place like the South, I find great power in leaning into its friction in order to uncover the intersections where expectations explode.”
McGuire goes on to say that there exists a version of the South that you can see only if you know the pain and the power of loving a place that often does not love you back.
When relating this idea to myself as the author of this piece, it’s a throughline that has existed since I was born and raised in Midwest. Though it was not the South in geography, but rather a state of mind. Many of the members of my church were Southern Blackfolk and the Southern mentality is one that travels. There’s a desperate pride to be seen as anything opposite the stereotypes while also proudly leaning into the stereotypes. The concept of a brash woman who speaks boldly but also knows her place when the men are around. The idea of the effete male who just hasn’t found the right lady and just boldly bought a house for himself and no one else. McGuire speaks of the paradox, and Socks on Fire puts it into words and picture.
Socks on Fire is a kind of hybrid of a film – 2 parts archival footage, 1 part documentary, 97 parts drama – and they all come together to make a film that moves you through the heartbeat of a broken Southern family. The family in question is headed by a matriarch affectionately known as “Nanny”. Set in the sometimes lush, sometimes dilapidated town of Hokes Bluff, AL, Nanny was the oldest of 13 children. McGuire’s mother, Susan, was the eldest of her 4 children. McGuire is Susan’s first born and thus he is the “oldest of the oldest of the oldest” a title that comes with an unspoken expectation of leadership.
While McGuire was away in New York, he learned his favorite childhood relative, Aunt Sharon, had locked her gay, drag queen baby brother (McGuire’s Uncle John) out of the family home. This sparked a need in McGuire to document his story.
The Geekiary: Tell me about your background and what inspired you to make this docudrama, mashup, hybrid of a film.
Bo McGuire: My background is in poetry – well actually, it’s listening to my mother talking on the phone. Really, that’s where I always say my inspiration comes from, listening to Southern women have conversations my whole life. But my background is poetry and I was studying at the University of Arizona.
McGuire was trying to figure out what he wanted to do and discussed his fascination with the Telephone video by Lady Gaga and Beyonce. That’s what he wanted to be doing. His advisor suggested film school and McGuire found the creative outlet he’d been seeking. News of his aunt’s doings came while he was preparing his final thesis and McGuire saw the perfect opportunity to document the budding family drama.
TG: It’s an amazing story and something that can be kind of typical when you’re dealing with large families and inheritance issues with no will. Families implode on each other. One thing I found fascinating was the motivation. Aunt Sharon didn’t seem to want the house to preserve the memories, but almost as a way to assert her power over the matter. You touch on this a bit in the film, but have you gotten any clarification as to the why? of it all?
McGuire: I guess it’s one of those things where there will never be clarification no matter how I try to look into it. As many conversations as I’ve had with my mom about it I just think there are no clear answers. You do speak to a truth. It’s a universal theme, when someone dies without a will, the sort of revelations that take place where people become more like themselves and they become what you wouldn’t expect them to be. I didn’t get any clarity of the why, like many things I think there’s more than one answer. I think Sharon wanted to establish her place in the family that she thought she didn’t have. I was left with what to do with what I feel. She was one of my biggest heroes, my inspirations as I grew up.
McGuire speaks with a charming Southern accent and narrates his film as though it’s a play, piqued with bits of his own poetry and archival footage of said Aunt Sharon appearing larger than life to McGuire as a child. The film also employs a unique technique of employing actors to recreate scenes in the movie. Aunt Sharon’s part is played by a drag queen named Chuck Duck.
McGuire: To me, the truth I came to was how do you hold both things to be true? How can someone be the hero and the villain? Where do you stand at that crossroads? My answer is to accept her for both. To not give up the wisdom and love we produced along the way but to carry that with me, but at the same time as coming to terms with who she actually is now and what our relationship is like now.
We see Aunt Sharon have a summons delivered to the house ordering Uncle John out. She has the locks changed and begins removing cars from the land and items from the house. There’s a scene in which McGuire has stolen Nanny’s beloved cedar chest from her house before Aunt Sharon can get to it. In some of the archival footage there’s a scene where Susan and Sharon are talking about the chest and Sharon says something along the lines of “it must have grown legs and walked out”. I found it fascinating that Sharon was there and considered herself a part of the family after what she’d done.
TG: I wonder, what does that feel like? When that person who is wreaking this havoc and they are there, but you’re not sure what to say – they might as well not be there. How do you deal with that?
McGuire: I guess you just sort of numb out in a way, and get through that. I’m trying to think of what it physically felt like. It felt threatening and not great, to get through it I had to access the empathy and love I had for her. I felt very protective over my Uncle John and my Nanny’s legacy. I also had a love and empathy for Aunt Sharon. Where do you lean? I lean more on my stubbornness and my fire and fight to record Nanny’s legacy outside of this bullsh*t. There were a lot of feelings, and it was about what emotions you pay closest attention to and what you lean into.
TG: I ask because I think it’s a conflagration* of feelings that is quietly universal. I think several people have been in that situation where they say, “what do I say? They’re right there!” and by the time they think of something that person is leaving the room.
[*conflagration means an extensive fire which destroys a great deal of land or property. It wasn’t exactly what I meant in our conversation, but I think it’s pretty apropos.]
McGuire: As if she would even listen! As if she would believe what I had to say, right? So you have to protect yourself.
“I don’t think of Socks on Fire as just a documentary of my family experience, but also how I see where I come from.” – Bo McGuire
McGuire’s experience is corralled by a very specific point of view. Initially watching Socks on Fire, I expected it to glamorize the South. Instead the South is shown as an antiqued diamond with the light of truth illuminating its many conflicting facets.
When the story revolves around Aunt Sharon, it’s fascinating in a true crime way, but when it revolves around Uncle John, the youngest of Nanny’s four children, it’s impossible to look away. John is a man who was simply born in the wrong place at the wrong time in regards to his queerness, but he’s determined to make the most of what he’s been given. He speaks about coming out later in life to make sure he didn’t cause discomfort in others. As more gay clubs begin to pop up (or come out of hiding), and John’s penchant for dressing in drag becomes more pronounced, it’s a wonder to see the ways his environment has changed and very much stayed the same.
TG: John’s sexuality is part of his community and what makes him “him”. It’s interesting to see the way that’s growing. Do you find that there are more queer voices out of those smaller areas?
McGuire: I actually have, yes. And I think it’s because of this film and we’re touring with the film. That was the reason I felt called to make this specifically, I wanted to tell a queer narrative of the South. We all know the bad things about the South and the complicated place it is because that is the knee-jerk narrative that’s told.
But that is not the South I know, it’s not the only South I know. The South I know is very loving and very open to difference. A lot of the great storytellers of the America way come out of the South. We have a different way of seeing character and relating to the landscape. A lot of the problems have come out of the problematic past of the South and I think Southerners have the language to talk about it.
TG: Do you have hope for reconciliation with Aunt Sharon down the line?
McGuire: I think about this, I think the film points to the hope that people can see the error of their ways, or the pain they have brought in their righteousness. I guess the film has that hope or potential, leaves that door open. I myself personally, do not. Just knowing who she is and who she surrounds herself with, I don’t know that this is enough. Also the way my mother feels, she can forgive, can she forget what’s been done? Though there’s no resolution in Socks on Fire, there is a resolve to carry on.
TG: Tell me what Socks on Fire is about for you and why you chose the title?
McGuire: This is a movie about a family collapsing, but around and in the making of it, another family was born. My mother is very invested in all of my crew and friends and vice versa and they her.
As for the title, I can’t remember to be honest! I think we had a conversation about lighting people’s socks on fire. We wanted to bring that energy that was both terrifying and also beautiful. It kind of plays into this thing of airing your dirty laundry in public, which I say in the film, Nanny would hate that. But I’m the first grandchild and I’m queer as hell and I’m here to light sh*t on fire and tell some truths.
Socks on Fire is a delightful biopic that turns the pain of fractured family dynamics into poetic art. The show can be found on tour with Uncle John’s Traveling Salvation Show The first 20 minutes there’s a drag show followed by the film and a Q&A. More details can be found on the Socks on Fire website.
Of course, if you’re unable to attend in person, you can stream the film during Outfest 2021!
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