25 years later, the controversy over 'Paris' still burns
In September of 1990, filmmaker Jennie Livingston released her landmark documentary, Paris is Burning, about New York City’s ballroom scene in the late 1980’s. In the ballroom, contestants — mostly black, Puerto Rican and poor — dressed up and competed for trophies in themed categories ranging from “High Fashion Eveningwear,” with sequined gowns and gowns and fur coats, to “Schoolboy/Schoolgirl Realness,” with sweaters, backpacks, and books. “Ball contestants” included both gay men and trans women. It was a revolutionary look at the LGBTQIA community of the era, one of the first to treat its subjects as
Even 25 years later, her documentary is a talking point. Today, as part of the series Celebrate Brooklyn, which presents outdoor events in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park during the summer, the nonprofit group BRIC is planning a screening of Paris is Burning. Over 15,000 people have RSVP’d to the event, a testament to the film’s enduring popularity. But it’s also kicked off a fierce debate on the event’s Facebook page, renewing criticisms that Livingston profited off of the film’s subjects, many of whom died of AIDS or are currently living in poverty.
The grievances surrounding Paris is Burning have been long-simmering. The film was criticized by feminist and social activist bell hooks for turning the hardships of queer people of color into a spectacle to be consumed by white audiences. The film’s subjects complained that Livingston herself was profiting off their lives and stories. Paris is Burning grossed $4 million at the box office, and launched Livingston into a successful filmmaking career, but most of its subjects died of AIDS or remained in poverty.
The film is so controversial that a petition has been circulated to boycott it. “The event was initially slated to feature a line-up that included NOT ONE PERSON from the documentary or the present THRIVING ballroom community and NO PERFORMERS OF COLOR,” the petition, organized by a group titled “Paris is Burnt” reads. “We are also concerned that this is a pro-gentrification event since the music/acts chosen to accompany the screening were geared towards the tastes of new white middle-class residents of Brooklyn and did not culturally reflect the indigenous existing TQPOC communities of Brooklyn or within the film,” the petition continues. BRIC, the organization that put on the screening has apologized, reaching out to more people of color in the ball community for their input. They added Junior LaBeija and Dr. Sol Williams Pendavis, who were both featured in the film, to the lineup.
To understand why exactly it’s touched such a nerve, you have to go back to the original film. I first watched Paris is Burning in 2012, while browsing Netflix (as I often do) for something offbeat and lighthearted to watch before bed. Paris is Burning, to put it mildly, is neither of those things. It is a poignant look at the ballroom scene against the backdrop of racism, poverty, homophobia, transphobia and AIDS. It is a multilayered and astute critique of American culture that still holds up today. And it quickly became one of my favorite films of all time.
“I remember my dad saying you have three strikes against you in this world,” says a man interviewed at the beginning of the film. “You’re black and you’re a male and you’re gay. You’re going to have a hard f-cking time. He said if you’re going to do this, you’re going to have to be stronger than you’ve ever imagined.”
“Kyriarchy” is a term for the way that race, class, gender, sexuality, gender identity, ability and other parts of a person’s identity work together to oppress. The word, often used in conjunction with the word “intersectionality,” has become ubiquitous in the college classroom. But Paris is Burning doesn’t use complicated academic language. Instead, it shows how these concepts work in real life.
“I’d always see the way that rich people live and I feel it more,” says a ball competitor. “It would slap me in the face. I’d say, ‘I have to have that.’ I never felt comfortable being poor. Or even middle class doesn’t suit me. Seeing the riches, seeing the way people on Dynasty lived, these huge houses. Why is it that they can have it and I didn’t? I always felt cheated.”
One of the most poignant moments comes during the “Executive Realness” category. In this category, contestants dress up as business men and women, in power suits and briefcases.
“In real life, you can’t get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity,” says Dorian Corey, a “drag world” elder. “Now, the fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of life. Black people have a hard time getting anywhere. And those that do are usually straight.
While many of the ball competitors were gay men, some of whom dressed in drag, many were trans women. Paris is Burning was one of the first films to look at trans issues without treating trans people as freaks or comic relief. “This is not a game for me, or fun,” explains aspiring model Octavia St. Laurent. “This is something I want to live.”
“I don’t feel that there’s anything mannish about me,” says Venus Xtravaganza. “I was about 13, 14 years old, and I used to do it behind my family’s back, just dressing up, til finally they caught on with it, and I didn’t want to embarrass them, so that’s when I moved away. I moved to New York and I continued doing it.”
Livingston also looked at the violence and danger faced by trans people every day.
“When they can walk out of the ballroom, into the sunlight, and onto the subway and get home and still have all their clothes and no blood running off their bodies, those are the femme realness queens” says Dorian Corey.
His comment was tragically prescient. While shooting the film, Venus Xtravaganza was murdered by a client while doing sex work.
“That’s just life,” sighs Angie Xtravaganza, who arranged Venus’s funeral because she was estranged from her family.
Today, such a heinous act of violence would probably spark an outcry.It’s hard not to think about what would have happened to the film’s subjects had they been born a decade or two later. By the mid-90s, AIDS was no longer the stigmatized death sentence it was when the film premiered. The prospect of marriage and children was not even on the table for the people in the film, but today, there are 37 states where gay marriage is legal. But the rate of violence against transgender people is on the rise. Transgender people still face high rates of job and housing discrimination, as well as street harassment and assault. On trans issues, as the controversy around Paris proves, we’ve made some strides in 25 years, but not nearly enough.