Paris is Burning and Black Queer Representation
For the purposes of this chapter, I wish I remembered the first time I saw Paris is Burning but I do not. It seems like it has always been playing in the back of my mind like Noah’s Arc episodes or E. Lynn Harris books. My friends and I often make references to Paris in or our day-to-day conversations and often discuss feeling connected to or advised by the participants. We often evoke their larger than life fierce personas to survive. Paris is often considered a canonical text in the Black queer community, along with Marlon Rigg’s Tongues Untied, in the sense that it is one of the first full-length movie depictions of Black queer people in Black and/or Black queer contexts (Johnson, 1995). Specifically, Paris is the first documentary to capture the New York ballroom scene during its “Golden Era.”
During the opening scenes of Paris, ballroom announcer Junior Labieja discusses balls as communal gatherings of Black gay people. He talks about balls as a place where “Gay people… men…gather together under one roof and decide to have a competition amongst themselves.” A ball is an event, typically held by a house or organization, where house members compete against opposing houses in categories. Some of the categories in the film include scenes like Town & Country, Executive Realness, Schoolboy/Schoolgirl realness and High Fashion Eveningwear.
Marlon M. Bailey’s Butch Queens Up in Pumps breaks down the gender politics of the contemporary Detroit ballroom scene. Bailey does performance ethnography and examines Ballroom as a queer cultural formation. Now the versions of the ballroom scene, exist all over the world and pieces of ballroom scene can be found all over popular culture. Bailey discusses how the ballroom scene also still works as a place of refuge for Black and Latino queer people. “For most, the Ballroom scene becomes a necessary refuge and a space in which to share and acquire skills that help Black and Latino/a LGBT individuals survive the urban world” (7). It is this sharing of Black queer survival skills that I feel is the enduring legacy of Paris.
In Paris, Livingston follows the lives of several gay and transsexual ballroom performers in the late 1980s. The film is most remembered and cited for its explanation of shade, which I engage with in chapter two and later in this chapter. Harlem Drag balls date back to the 1920s.. Many in the Black queer community point to drag performer Crystal Labieja’s dramatic departure from the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant, which took place in New York City, as the beginning of Harlem Ballroom culture. Both the contest itself and Crystal Labieja’s dramatic exit and fierce reading of it as racist were captured in Frank Simon’s documentary The Queen. After leaving the contest, Crystal founded the first house of the ballroom scene, the House of Labieja. As discussed in Paris, soon several houses were founded and they began to have balls where houses would compete against rival houses. Now there are hundreds of house and ballroom scenes all over the world.
One controversy of the film is its often tragic portrayal of Black and Latino queer youth. The film follows the late 80s and early 90s of the Harlem Ballroom scene. Many of the participants are poor and break the law in order to survive. The film ends with Venus Xtravaganza’s tragic murder, which her House Mother Angie reads as a part of being transgender in New York. Feminist writer and scholar bell hooks critically engages with the film in her book Black Looks in which she expresses ambivalence toward the portrayal of the participants in the film. While acknowledging some of its joy and entertainment value, hooks points out that there is a theme of White supremacy that exists within the comments, actions and desires of participants.
Any viewer of Paris is Burning can neither deny the way in which its contemporary drag balls have the aura of sports events, aggressive competitions, one team (in this case “house”) competing against another etc., nor ignore the way in which the male “gaze” in the audience is directed at participants in a manner akin to the objectifying phallic stare straight men direct at ‘feminine’ women daily in public spaces. Paris is Burning is a film that many audiences assume is inherently oppositional because of its subject matter and the identity of the filmmaker. Yet the film’s politics of race, gender, and class are played out in ways that are both progressive and reactionary (149).
In many respects, I agree with hooks. In the documentary, there are several scenes of the performers sharing fantasies of living and looking like the characters from the 1980s television show Dynasty, or as popular supermodels or rich heiresses, which were unanimously White and wealthy. hooks goes on to state that the film represents a larger worshiping of White ideas of wealth and beauty that encourages the performers and many Black people as a whole to “live in perpetual self-hate, steal, lie, go hungry, and even die” to pursue these ideals (149). For this reason, it is not surprising that both hooks and I had the experience of being uncomfortable in a room surrounded by White people cooing over the film. The 20th anniversary edition DVD of the film has audio commentary featuring filmmakers Livingston and Jonathon Oppenheim and Paris performers Willie Ninja and Freddie Pendavis. Ninja addresses the critique that they all aspire to be White and instead argues that they desire to have some of the things White people have that are not afforded to many Black and poor people
Livingston being White herself complicates how the film is received and how especially Black and Latino people read her intentions. She is read by many in the community as an outsider like the stereotypical White researcher, who gains access, does their research, profits and leaves while the community stays the same. Throughout Livingston’s audio commentary, she does not explicitly address the compensation aspect of the discussion but use the film and the commentary to raise awareness about trans people and issues with healthcare and insurance. From listening to the commentary, Livingston’s relationship to the ballroom scene and Pendavis and Ninja seem to be genuine. They joke back and forth, reflect on old times and the film’s impact.
In Jesse Green’s 1993 New York Times article “Paris Has Burned,” Livingston argues that claiming the film is designed for White consumption is unfounded due the film’s success being because of a largely gay audience that include Black and Latinos. Livingston goes on to state, “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.” Livingston points to her gender and sexuality to suggest that she too is oppressed by the larger patriarchal system. However, Livingston’s Whiteness and the themes of White adulation that exist in Paris cannot be overlooked because they play a role in how well the film has circulated and how it has been received.
While Paris is credited for spreading ballroom culture around the world, many of the participants complained about what they saw as unfair compensation for their participation in the film. The 1993 death of Anjie Xstravaganza from HIV/AIDS provided an exigency for Green’s engagement with Paris’ legacy and to declare ominously that “Paris Has Burned.” Green’s title suggests the death of the “Golden Age of the Ballroom Scene,” with the death of the film’s crowned “Mother of the Year.” One of the biggest controversies of the film is that many of the performers felt that they were exploited and unfairly compensated for their participation in the film. Green interviews several of the performers from the film, including Corey who expresses ambivalence toward many ballroom performers and their reaction to the film’s success.
Corey discusses how the community reacted to the film: “Oh yes, to this day a lot of the girls hate Miss Jennie, but that’s just greed…” In the article, Green states that Livingston paid $55,000 to thirteen performers who appeared in the movie. The movie cost $500,000 plus $175,000 for music clearance and yielded $4 million dollars. Corey points out that the movie studio was the real beneficiary. Corey states, “…I’ll tell you who is making out is those clever Miramaxes. But I didn’t do it for money anyway: I did it for fun. Always have.” Paris performer Pepper Labieja did not see the nominal compensation as exploitative but as betrayal.
When Jennie first came, we were at a ball, in our fantasy, and she threw papers at us. We didn’t read them, because we wanted the attention. We loved being filmed. Later, when she did the interviews, she gave us a couple hundred dollars. But she told us that when the film came out we would be all right. There would be more coming.
Green interviews Livingston who argues that she has not gotten rich off the film either. However, she does acknowledge that her Whiteness, education and class allow her more flexibility and leverage in our society. Specifically, the success of the film gave her the ability to work as a filmmaker. Livingston states, “And that’s something I wasn’t before. It doesn’t mean it’s easy to get money. But I am educated and I am white so I have the ability to write those grants and push my little body through whatever door I need to get it through.” She goes on to state that many of the drag performers would not be able to make a film like this about themselves because of how society is structured. Livingston became a working filmmaker. Many of the performers were given a nominal fee and became famous. Through their fame, the performers are able to influence a new generation of Black queer people. However, the performers’ material conditions and encounters with racism and homophobia are not so different from that of many Black queer and transgender today.
Many of the performers died in the decade after filming. For this reason, I read the arc of the narrative and its impact on the lives of the participants as morbid. Many of the participants, whether they knew it or not, were giving some of their last words on Black queer life for a new generation of Black queer people. The film’s dedication to “the legendary children” and “upcoming legends” is a nod to one of the performers comments about his status in the ballroom scene but also speaks to the eternal nature of the literacies they pass on to the next generation. By dedicating the film to the upcoming legends, Livingston writes the performers as ancestors in the future and a larger Black queer history.
The impact of Paris is Burning can be seen all over popular culture. Black reality television shows like Real Housewives of Atlanta and Basketball Wives reference and implement shade in verbal battles. Rupaul’s Drag Race has a “Reading is Fundamental” challenge in every season where they see who is the best at the elevated insult performance of reading. Musicians C+C Music Factory and Blood Orange have also sampled interview scenes from Paris in their music. Also, most of my participants from chapter two’s examination of shade reference Paris for their definition of shade and as an influence on their identities as Black queer people. There is a persistent theme of community tied to survival that runs through the film. In the next section, my analysis will engage with the fierce literacies of survival the Paris performers leave to us, their descendants.
 D’Emilio mentions Harlem and its drag balls as one of the Black gay communities that existed before the gay liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s.