Paris Is Burning, the award-winning 1990 documentary film that introduced the world to Harlem’s voguing and ball culture, is no stranger to controversy. The film’s depiction of an underground pageant and performance scene created by and for LGBT people of color (brought to the mainstream by the film and by Madonna’s iconic “Vogue” video) has been alternately lauded and fiercely criticized. But the heat built up to volcanic proportions this month when a June 26 screening at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park was announced to coincide with the city’s pride festival—and the internet exploded with demands to shut the event down.
It started with the lineup: Paris is Burning, the screening, accompanied by director Jennie Livingston and DJ JD Samson (of Le Tigre fame)—both white, lesbian and genderqueer identified artists who aren’t considered members of the ball scene. Trans and queer people of color (often shortened to the acronym TQPOC online) began tweeting and leaving comments on the event’s Facebook page, criticizing the decision to screen the film with two white artists as guests, instead of including dancers and representatives from New York’s sprawling, still-active ballroom community.
— brownroundboi (@brownroundboi) May 12, 2015
The comments quickly multiplied into the thousands, sometimes escalating into fierce disagreements and personal, ad hominem attacks. The anger reached a boiling point with many outraged remarks, such as the following user response to a Daily Dot interview request: “Don’t hijack our rage you hatebaiting fat shaming fascist.”
For the most part, however, the concerns aired were sober reflections from a marginalized community that has long struggled with outsiders swooping in to take credit for its vibrant arts culture.
“When someone from outside comes in and takes something from our culture and makes it theirs, that’s appropriation,” said Elizabeth Marie Rivera, a member of the House of Ninja founded by Paris Is Burning cast member and voguing legend Willi Ninja, “People were wondering, where is the money that [Livingston] made? How is she giving back to the community? It’s like, she just came in and made this documentary and she left.”
Not all of the criticisms of the event were centered on Livingston’s direction of the documentary. Commenters also raised the issue of Brooklyn’s intensifying, often racism-driven gentrification, which has pushed communities of color to the fringes as white middle-class renters take over neighborhoods. And though it wasn’t specifically addressed, the cultural legacy of the vogue ball scene often goes uncredited. If you’ve ever used words like “fierce” or “shady” or commented “yassss queen” or “work” on a cute Instagram pic, you’ve been speaking the language of the ball scene—likely, without ever realizing where it came from.
In response to the concerns, JD Samson quickly decided to drop out of the event, posting a statement saying that when she was originally asked to DJ at Celebrate Brooklyn’s pride event, she hadn’t been aware of the lineup.
“At the time, I wasn’t aware that Paris is Burning was playing as well. When I found out, I immediately started thinking about the space that I would be taking up and the importance of highlighting the work of queer people of color in the program that night,” read Samson’s statement. “I chose to reach out to some members of the ball community to perform during my set, but have since realized that this was not the right solution.”
But as intense as the online discussion has become, the controversy swirling around Paris Is Burning didn’t spring forth out of nowhere. According to Kevin Omni Burrus, an original documentary cast member who has criticized the film for years, the film’s director deceived the 1980s vogue ball community.
“When Miss Jennie first landed in the ballroom community, she came in and fooled everybody,” Burrus said. “She claimed she was doing a thesis. She was having people sign those release forms thinking they were for her college thesis. I don’t really think they were expecting it to come out in theaters.”
Burrus said Livingston shot lengthy footage of his “walks,” a fashion show-like competition in various ball categories. But he barely appeared in the documentary because, he said, he challenged the terms of the contract.
“I pride myself on this one thing: I actually know how to read. When it came to somebody telling me to sign something, I already knew not to do that,” said Burrus. “Jennie [Livingston] knew who was desperate and who wasn’t. Most of the drag queens in the film, they didn’t work. Nobody was gonna hire a man with a wig unless you were going to do some entertaining in a bar. If you came out there in a wig, your behind was locked up.”
After spending years trying to raise awareness of what he’s always perceived as the problematic history behind Paris Is Burning, Burrus said he was “ready to cartwheel all across my living room and right out the window” because he was so happy to see younger people talking about it online.
Sentiments like the ones expressed by Burrus led to several cast members attempting to sue Livingston after the documentary was sold to Miramax in a distribution deal. Paris Dupree, for whom the film was named, sought $40 million (roughly ten times what the film grossed in theaters) but lost her claim when Livingston procured Dupree’s signed release form. After some negotiating, Livingston agreed to pay $55,000 to 13 of the performers featured in the documentary. Some called it “hush money” in a 1993 New York Times story.
Another painful aspect of the Paris Is Burning legacy is the murder of Venus Xtravaganza, one of the film’s central performers. Xtravaganza’s killing remains unsolved to this day, a problem that highlights both the disproportionately high rates of violence facing transgender women of color and the lack of appropriate response from society and law enforcement.
The community of trans women of color was shaken during the early months of 2015, when it was reported that six murders had taken place in the space of less than two months. According to Janet Mock, such statistics don’t reflect an uptick in violence against trans women–instead they reflect the fact that people are actually starting to track and record the deaths. In 2013, according to statistics from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, a staggering 72 percent of victims of anti-LGBT homicide were transgender women.
Such murders have hit New York’s ball community especially hard. In 2012, the House of Xtravanganza lost another member to murder. And Lorena Xtravaganza‘s murder, like that of her predecessor Venus, remains unsolved.
But if Paris Is Burning has been around for 24 years, why has it taken until now for the movie to prompt such an intense community discussion? Rivera has one theory.
“The political and racial climate in this country is at an all time high, and people are feeling empowered to say ‘I’m sick and tired and I’m not putting up with this anymore,’” said Rivera. “So with Baltimore, Ferguson, and what happened in Staten Island with Eric Garner, it’s created a lot of raw emotion with people. When this event came up, it definitely made some people of color feel upset. It’s the 24th anniversary of the project—why would you not invite folks from the movie who are still living to speak about their performance?”
“The political and racial climate in this country is at an all time high, and people are feeling empowered to say ‘I’m sick and tired and I’m not putting up with this anymore.'”
For her part, Livingston addressed these questions through multiple responses posted to the Facebook discussion over the past week.
“I’m grateful the conversations here encouraged me to deeply consider my relationships, both to surviving members of the Paris is Burning cast and to the TQPOC community at large,” Livingston wrote in a post on the Facebook event page on Wednesday. “As we move forward towards the 25th anniversary of the film, I need to keep talking with the cast members themselves about how they feel about the film and its continued distribution. And if they’re interested, how can the cast and I work together to benefit the community?”
Jazmine Perez, a longtime ball walker and the Mother of the House of Revlon, told the Daily Dot that while she had originally sought to cancel the Celebrate Brooklyn screening, her mind was changed after an hour-long discussion with Livingston and the event producers.
“I learned a lot about Jennie and I will admit to being misinformed about her. Lots of people in the ball scene keep looking at it from the race point of view. But I’m not looking at it like that anymore,” said Perez.
“In this day and age, when the LGBTQ community is constantly being discriminated against and murdered, we need to unite as a whole,” Perez said. “Arguing with Jennie about her race and thinking she is racist is not going to help or change things. Besides, how could she be a racist or transphobic? If that were the case she would have never stepped a foot at a ball, let alone in Harlem at that.”
The event producers released a statement on Wednesday acknowledging the concerns the online community had raised. Organizers at BRIC, the Brooklyn community non-profit that produces Celebrate Brooklyn events, also stated that they were revamping the lineup in response:
“We have now done what we should have done when we initially planned the event: reached out to QTPOC organizations and individuals, and members of the ballroom community, to gain their insights and hear their ideas for the program. We apologize for not having done so earlier. After this consultation, the revised line-up, which we hope to finalize in the next few days, will include artists and programming from the QTPOC and ballroom communities.”
At face value, BRIC’s statement, and the open, honest, sometimes painful discussion that preceded it, are signs of progress. But Burrus still takes the film itself to task.
“People may not understand the hurt that was caused by Paris is Burning,” Burrus said of the film’s depiction of the community he was, and is, a central part of. “Not all of us were drug addicts, thieves, or prostitutes. There were people with PhD’s and master’s degrees in the ballroom world. But [Livingston] just wanted to tell the broken part of the story. That’s what she built that film on.”
Burrus said the hurt feelings that came along with the documentary were a partial inspiration for the 2006 film he co-directed with Wolfgang Busch, How Do I Look. For that documentary, the vogue ball community was brought together in a series of meetings at the LGBT community center, where the directors crowdsourced ideas for the film.
Some of the online comments have called for Livingston and Miramax to make more payments to the ball community, arguing that they didn’t see a large enough share of the film’s profits. Perez disagreed, although she said that people in the ball community have been criticizing Paris Is Burning “as long as I’ve been competing.”
“The surviving people that were documented in Paris Is Burning don’t care for further compensation and Jennie is good friends with them,” Perez said. “If they don’t have a problem with it, why should the rest of the community? I don’t think any compensation is needed at this point.”
But Perez said it was important to widen the perspective and to acknowledge the context that drives people’s passionate, conflicting stances on the film.
“LGBTQ people of color need all the help and support we can get. When you think of societal constructs it’s like we are at the bottom of the food chain,” said Perez. “After this documentary was released you would imagine people would be touched by the stories that were shared and would create changes to help the community. But it didn’t happen. LGBTQ people, especially people of color, are still being murdered and are victims of violence. We want and need change.”
Photo via Paris is Burning/Facebook