Coffee Rhetoric: Revisiting 'Paris Is Burning': Sifting Through The Ashes

January 15, 2013

Revisiting 'Paris Is Burning': Sifting Through The Ashes

Paris Is Burning … a documentary I've seen countless times over the years, having watched it as recently as this past Thursday night at 2:00 A.M. to lull myself to sleep and then three times Monday night, to delve deeper for the sake of this post. It’s one of those documentary film experiences I still appreciate to this day for the candidness provided by its subjects and for introducing me to the intricacies of a subculture that often goes unaccredited for the ways in which it helped shape a lot of popular culture, music, and vernacular. It continued to leave me with lingering questions about Jennie Livingston’s approach to and motivation for culling the information during that moment in space and time; and more importantly, what happened to the subjects that shaped Livingston’s documentary and provided a quintessential work to be deconstructed by cinephiles, writers, and scholars alike, 22 years later.

While the rare inside look at the pageantry, pomp and circumstance of New York City’s underground ball culture during the 1990’s is compelling in and of itself, - (ball legend Pepper Labeija had me hooked the moment she sauntered down the aisle of a ball, draped in a gold lamé costume at the beginning of the documentary as she confidently voices over to viewers, “I’m Pepper Labeija, the legendary mother of The House of Labeija…”) - I’m always struck by the personal narratives shared by the documentary’s subjects, profound even if the discourse is, at times, troubling and a bit melancholy.

When starry-eyed, beautiful, and ambitious transwoman Octavia Saint Laurent said, “I want to be somebody, well I am somebody, I just want to be a rich somebody…” 

or when seasoned (and somewhat jaded) veteran Dorian Corey opined, “I always had hopes of being a big star, but as you get older, you aim a little lower. Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you've made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you've left your mark. You don’t have to bend the world; I think it’s better to just enjoy it, pay your dues and just enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you…” 

I wondered if the wearied and desirous denizens of New York’s 90’s drag balls ever attained their goals.

I wanted to know more beyond the scope of Livingston’s documentary… where the patient and influential 'House Mother’ Angie Xtravaganza or Kim Pendavis and his protégé Freddie Pendavis, had landed after Paris had burned.

What had become of the 15-year-old kid who defiantly answered that he didn't have a mother or father, stating they were “gone” and that he was living with “a friend” when prodded about why he and his companion were out-and-about so late in the evening? Some of the answers surrounding the documentary and its subjects, I’d discover, are somber.

Jennie Livingston (an openly lesbian white woman who grew up in Los Angeles and is a graduate of Yale) was given unprecedented access into the lives of a predominantly Black and Latino gay and transgender community comprised of poor and displaced gay and trans men and women, who grappled with gender-identity in an often exclusionary society, racism, and homelessness, and who found support, kinship, and camaraderie among one another when they were ostracized and ejected from their homes by their families.  Drag balls provided them escapism through interpretive performance art, where they’d often re-enact a quality of life (mostly affluent, privileged, and white) many of them yearned to live…

 “This is white America” narrates a ball participant. “Any other nationality that is not of the white set knows this and accepts this 'til the day they die. That is everybody’s dream and ambition as a minority… to live and look as well as a white person is pictured as being in America. (...) We have had everything taken from us and yet we have all learned how to survive. That’s why in the ballroom circuit it is obvious that if you have captured the great white way of living or looking or dressing or speaking, you is a marvel.”
Ball culture seemingly provided validation, freedom of expression, and rewards many of the documentary’s subjects never found outside the confines of ball pageantry. “Balls to us is as close to reality as we’re going to get to all of that fame, and fortune, and stardom, and spotlights.” said another of the film’s subjects. More importantly, Paris Is Burning showcased voices from a segment of the LGBT community, often silenced, ignored, or not advocated for. 

When Jennie Livingston infiltrated and curated her piece on drag ball cultureParis is Burning became an instant hit (despite the apprehension of distributors) and many of the documentary’s main protagonists saw this as an opportunity to capitalize on the success and fulfill some of their goals; but alas some were left feeling slighted and exploited by Livingston once the dust settled and accolades poured in...

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