Within the last couple of months, our country has seen a loud uproar in fighting for human rights. As this year’s pride month comes to a close and as civil rights bills surrounding the lives of this country’s LGBTQ+ citizens continue to arise, it is important for those of us who are educating ourselves on the issues that affect marginalized communities to grow in our responsible understanding in order support each other as fellow human beings.
Widely promoted and written about, Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning (1990) has been celebrated for being a catalyst for telling the stories of queer and trans people of color, specifically focusing on Harlem’s Black and Latinx drag-ballroom subculture in the 1980s. Earlier this year, the film was added to the criterion collection on Blu-Ray and DVD and has been praised for being included among the platform’s prestigious titles. However, the film has also been met with heavy criticism since its release thirty years ago raising critical questions surrounding the relationship between privilege and responsible representation.
While Paris is Burning provides an insight into the groundbreaking Harlem QTPOC subculture on a platform for mainstream consumption, it also constructs a rather limited portrait of a few queens to make up a whole for a community that has already been represented through stereotypical tropes in both fiction and non-fiction media. Livingston, who is a white Yale-educated and openly queer lesbian, started working on documenting New York City’s mostly Black and Latinx queer folk after noticing a group of people “voguing” in a park. What started out as an outsider-looking-in curiosity project developed into an exposé attempt to document this trailblazing community.
Focusing on the QTPOC community during the 1980s, it is impossible to not have a palpable awareness of the larger issues of race, class, poverty, gender, sexuality, the AIDS health crisis, survival, and so many others. However, Livingston’s approach in constructing the documentary’s narrative has provoked controversy for its possible exploitative nature, voyeuristic lens, and its potential surrender to a stereotypical framework in consideration of how the film is contextualized. Aside from the problematic undertones that the film may contain, the picture it paints is beautiful and the people it portrays are infectious.
Paris is Burning opens with shots of queer youth on moonlit streets in New York City under a sound bite from someone recalling a conversation they had with their father who said if you’re going to be a black gay male in this world you would have to be “stronger than ever imagined.” These first few minutes alone establish the undeniable strength and tenacity of the people we’re introduced to while maintaining an acknowledgment of the greater and much darker context that surrounds the stories that are about to be shared.
Following the lead of major names in the ballroom drag scene including Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Venus Xtravaganza, Willi Ninja, Octavia Saint Laurent, and many more, the film proceeds to hold the hand of the mainstream viewer through the community’s vernacular, culture, and history. Laid out with clear and distinct black title cards that read relevant names or words in bold white capital letters, Paris is Burning becomes a crash course on many things from trendsetting words that are still in use in popular culture today, like “shade” or “realness,” to the overall event of “balls” and the depth of concepts like being a “mother” or belonging to a “house.”
The focal point of the documentary, aside from the featured candid testimonies, is Paris Dupree’s 1986 ball “Paris is Burning,” the film’s namesake, which showcases the immense talent of many of the film’s participants. From runway walks presenting attitudes and outfits from different categories to vogue dance battles, the viewer bears witness to the beauty and skill of each of the contestants. For a community that fights for survival on a daily basis, events like the “Paris is Burning” ball becomes a place for safe expression and a creative outlet to achieve a sense of freedom through mutual support, performance, and competition.
Towards the end of the film, candid footage of aspiring models Octavia Saint Laurent and Venus Xtravaganza is intertwined to parallel their ambitions and plans for their futures. An intimate shot of Octavia Saint Laurent shows her lounging back under a wall full of photos of the models she looks up to. She imagines the life she dreams to live, full of “a lot of beautiful things…a happy life.” The shot then cuts to Venus Xtravaganza, in a similar frame, laying on her bed and talking about her dreams of becoming a professional model in the high fashion world, moving away from the city, becoming “a complete woman,” and getting married in a church, all dressed in white. The palpable drive and excitement of both of these women leave the viewers joining them in looking forward to the rest of their lives in an empathetic embrace.
The issue of privilege and representation in the making of this film is something that can’t go ignored and needs to be addressed. Film allows viewers to witness a lived experience other than their own, providing grounds for an expansion of an audience’s own empathy and understanding towards others. Although Livingston’s intentions of making this film appear to acknowledge the empathetic abilities of the art, the use of her privilege has generated questions of the appropriation of a Black and Latinx narrative and whether or not it was her place to tell this story at all. While the film did put some participants on the map like Willi Ninja and Octavia Saint Laurent, kickstarting their careers professionally, many of the other participants were not so happy with the outcome, feeling abandoned and exploited by Livingston for entertainment, leading many to file lawsuits against her. Issues of representation and critical questions of intentionality are important to keep in mind when engaging with media that renders and represents marginalized communities. Responsibility happens both in the practice of filmmaking but also in viewership. Responsible viewership begins with a consideration of contemporary circumstances and context with an acknowledgment of respect for the subjects who agree to share their stories with us.