Paris is Burning chronicles New York’s ballroom subculture in the 80s. A film seven years in the making, it features the African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities involved in the balls. Despite it being one of the few films to document these marginalized groups, it was and is a controversial film.
Some see it as shining a light on these often ignored groups, others see it as cultural appropriation and profiting off the subjects of the film, especially since the director, Jennie Livingston, was a middle-class, white genderqueer lesbian. Was she playing the role of voyeur, enabler of cultural appropriation?
Livingston was born in Houston, but grew up in Los Angeles. Her uncle was director Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men, Klute). She studied photography, drawing, and painting at Yale, with a minor in English. After college, she took a film class at NYU, where she received a documentary assignment. “I met some guys who were voguing in Washington Square Park. I carried my camera everywhere, and so, I was in the park with my camera and I saw these guys who were hanging out around a tree and they were posing,” Livingston told Buzzfeed. “I asked them if I could take their picture, and they said yes. And I said, ‘What are you doing?’ And they said, ‘We’re voguing!’ I was like, ‘What’s that?’”
The guys told her she could go to a ball and see it, so she went to a LGBT Community Center ball with a wind up camera. “I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know who was a man or woman, but I was enraptured,” Livingston said.
According to Wikipedia‘s definition, ball culture describes an underground LGBT subculture in which people “walk”—as in, walk a runway—for trophies and prizes at balls. There are many different categories where a particular style has to be maintained, where contestants try to pass as a certain gender or social class. The participants in the culture belong to groups known as “houses”. The film features members from Pendavis, Xtravaganza, Ninja, LaBeija, and several others.
These houses are families, where LGBTQ groups band together under a “house mother” or “house father”. Paris Is Burning addresses how people of color, queers, and poor people face disadvantages as marginalized groups, and to identify as all three make people outcasts. When they become part of a house, they become part of a new family, one who embraces and loves them. House parents often provide guidance, advice, and care for young people who might otherwise be homeless.
Livingston’s film got into Sundance and won the grand jury prize in 1991. It went on to commercial success when it was distributed by Miramax, grossing nearly $4 million, rare for a documentary.
Rumors in the ball world that Livingston had gotten rich off them led to a lawsuit by several of the performers in the film. Livingston said she spent a lot of time with the people in the film before she started shooting and that everyone signed release forms. “I never said ‘Babe, I’m gonna make you a star.’ I went in and said, ‘I’m interested, will you talk to me?’”
Although all dropped their claims once lawyers confirmed they had signed the standard release forms, the producers distributed $55,000 among the 13 participants. “The journalistic ethic says you should not pay them,” Livingston told the New York Times. “On the other hand, these people are giving us their lives! How do you put a price on that?”
“Those issues around “what does it mean to represent a culture?” — a culture you are from, a culture you aren’t from — are heavy issues. And there were people who were angry. People have written about Paris Is Burning in terms of those issues, which is fine. You have to ask these questions. Sometimes, though, people have written about the film in a way that they don’t write about other people. I think that’s partially because when a queer woman makes something, we’re supposed to be held to higher standards than Martin Scorsese or Michael Moore. But we all work in the same medium,” Livingston told Buzzfeed.
bell hooks questioned the film’s depiction of the drag balls: “Much of the film’s focus on pageantry takes the ritual of the black drag ball and makes it spectacle. Ritual is that ceremonial act that carries with it meaning and significance beyond what appears, while spectacle functions primarily as entertaining dramatic display… Hence it is easy for white observers to depict black rituals as spectacle.”
Livingston has said she made the documentary during a time when she was up against the establishment of Hollywood and the film industry, who didn’t want you as a woman to make a film, didn’t want to see queer images, and didn’t want to give you money, “which is still an issue for women filmmakers and queer filmmakers.”
“I don’t believe you have to be one thing to make a film about it. I’m white, yes, but I’m an openly queer, female director, and I can’t think of anything more out of the mainstream. I’m sorry, but I do not think I have the same relationship to the ruling class as a straight man,” she said in The New York Times.
Even with the controversy surrounding the film, it depicts a subculture which was mostly unknown at the time and continues to be marginalized today. At the end of the film, a title card informs the audience of the killing of Venus Xtravaganza, of Italian and Puerto Rican background, who was found in a hotel room strangled. The recent spree of murders of six trans women of color shows how little has changed for the transgender community.
While Paris is Burning might have opened up an LGBQT subculture to the masses, allowing Madonna, RuPaul, and America’s Next Top Model to borrow (or steal, depending on your view) its uniqueness, it also is an important documentation of a community that would not have been seen otherwise and continues to create dialogue about what we can do to help the transgender and gay communities. The film is used as an organizing tool for gay and trans youth, as well studied by scholars and students to examine issues of race, class, and gender. As has been pointed out in the obituaries of the film’s participants who have died, it is a portrait of remarkable human beings and provides a way for current ball participants to meet those who came before them.