Cartoon people standing outside a movie theater

An animated version of Chelly Wilson poses with some of her regular poker buddies in an image provided by Exile Films.

There have been many documentaries about Holocaust survivors. Queen of the Deuce is likely the only one about a survivor who went on to make her fortune in the porn industry.

Born into a family of Greek Jews in 1908, Chelly Wilson was quicker than most to recognize the rising threat Nazi Germany posed in the late 1930s. Temporarily leaving her son with her ex-husband and her daughter with a non-Jewish acquaintance, she hastily emigrated to New York, where she was soon making money selling hot dogs.

But Wilson’s real success came years later, when she began acquiring neighborhood movie theaters and devoting them to the increasingly popular genre of pornography. By the time soft porn began giving way to the hard variety, she was honchoing a business that ran a slew of theaters and even made its own features.

Directed and co-written by Valerie Kontakos, Queen of the Deuce tells Wilson’s story through interviews with her grown children and grandchildren, as well as people who worked with her over the years. Though she died in 1994, Wilson even makes an appearance herself thanks to home movies and interviews recorded by her family. In addition, an animated version of Wilson at various ages makes brief appearances to help us understand who she was and how she got that way.

It all adds up to a portrait of an individual whose life was full of contradictions. For example:

⸱ She was a Jew who celebrated Christmas (which was also her birthday).

⸱ She was a lesbian but was married twice, including to a man she met in America.

⸱ She was a mother and grandmother who valued her family but sometimes kept them in the dark about her past.

A final contradiction is that, while many would label her a feminist thanks to her fierce independence, she made her living off a film genre that feminists of her era often considered misogynous.

In general, Wilson comes across as someone who proudly and unapologetically lived her life and was unafraid to thumb her nose at social norms. Director Kontakos does a good job of capturing her personality with major help from collaborators such as editor Rob Ruzic, composer Ken Myhr and lead animator Abhilasha Dewan.

As a bonus, Kontakos also captures the personality of New York in the 1960s and ’70s, before politicians such as Rudy Giuliani began working to reform its sex-, dirt- and crime-ridden image. Back then, the Big Apple might not have been as nice a place to visit as today’s cleaned-up version, but it obviously was the perfect home for a risk-taking entrepreneur named Chelly Wilson.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Queen of the Deuce previously made the rounds of several festivals, including the 2023 Columbus Jewish Film Festival. The film opens May 24 in select theaters and online through Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV.

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