OP-ED: ‘PARIS IS BURNING’ IS A BLACK EXPLOITATION FILM
By Codi Maddox
June 17, 2019
Paris Is Burning, directed by Jennie Livingston, chronicles New York City ballroom subculture during its golden age: the mid to late 80s. It stars the trans and queer people of color (TQPOC) that defined the era. While the film highlights this marginalized group, the same individuals who made this film famous were mistreated with no compensation during a time of unstable work for the very community due to prejudice. They were not even advocated for during a time of immense health crisis for our TQPOC community.
What is ballroom culture?
To those engaged in the community, a drag ball meant many things. For one, it meant a sense of family amongst houses. From a street interview in the film we learn, “Going to balls you felt 100% right being gay.” It offered a place of belonging in a world where trans, queer and gay men of color are violently rejected by society while fighting to be seen and heard. For those of us who watched the film, it was entertaining at the least, but ballroom culture is bigger than this. Voguing has definitely earned its place in pop culture history as made clear by the influence of the underground drag scene. It is the very influence that gave us Ru-Paul’s Drag Race and has influenced music, dance and fashion as a whole. Paris is Burning is still an audio-visual handbook for the slang and gestures of teen TQPOC to this day.
Throughout our time in America, Black people have truly transmuted oppression and social economic strife into innovation and creative expression that impacts western culture and beyond; we have turned led into gold and table scraps into soul food. Drag balls, born of social discontent and a desire to create community are no exception to this concept. In the words of Ms. Dorian Corey, “In real life, you can’t get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity, and the reason that you’re not an executive was just the social standard of life.” Drag balls have different categories, often reflecting real life desires. One of the categories, “executive realness” shows us, the viewers, that there was a craving for normalcy not given to the community due to society’s restrictions. Balls offered a chance to escape reality if only just for a little while.
Paris is Burning was well received. Jennie Livingston gained several awards while her peers showered her in accolades. This film was groundbreaking; it was even added to the Library of Congress. It exhibited a subculture that has existed in Harlem since the 1920’s but was unknown to most. The film did $3,779,620 at box office, a lot for a documentary. Livingston capitalized off of Black culture like many before and after her. Post-success, Livingston moved to a posh luxury home and went on about her life. Meanwhile The TQPOC who made the film what it is continued to live in poverty and die from AIDS-related illnesses or drugs. Very few saw the success of Willie Ninja and Angie Xtravaganza. Throughout the years, Livingston has skirted around this controversy and has even claimed she intended to pay those involved. In an interview called “Paris is Burning: The Dark Side,” Marcel Christian Labeija claims the brochures of the movie advertised that it was a film about prostitution and welfare recipients.
Alongside praise and prize, Livingston has been met with much criticism over the years accused of flagrant cultural appropriation and even voyeurism regarding her documentary. In 2015, she was summoned to host a screening of the film with Brooklyn nonprofit BRIC. The event had no QTPOC as hosts nor did it include individuals relevant to drag ball culture so it was petitioned to be canceled. Feminist and scholar, bell hooks reviews Paris is Burning in her book Black Looks making the observation that, “Jennie Livingston addresses her subjects as an outsider looking in.” Livingston’s perspective is that of a white woman viewing a Black, gay male subculture and experience. In an interview with Ms. Octavia St Laurent (a prominent face in the film), when asked the question, “How do you explain how others feel seeing the film?” she replies, “Because they’re looking outside in, anything gay people do first of all is a bunch of entertainment.” Multiple accounts from the cast suggest that Livingston was very far removed from the reality of these peoples experience as QTPOC’s.
Over 17 cast members took Jennie to court, seeking compensation for their role in the documentary. In an interview, Ms. Carmen Xtravaganza states, “I didn’t get nothing out of it” and she felt Jennie took advantage of the cast. In an ideal world this movie is beautiful, capturing the creativity and resilience of the TQPOC community sharing their stories and hardships. Unfortunately this film was not a tool for education, it was not used to advocate for gay rights in a time of social inflation for the LGBTQIA+ community. No, this film was entertainment, almost satirically edited. It does not give us that everyday realness. Yes, we are aware that young people stole and starved just to go to drag balls but this film was followed by applause and silence. The mainstream stopped to ogle something interesting and then we went on about our lives.