Countertext: Paris is Burning

In any contemporary engagement with ball culture, attention eventually turns to the 1991 documentary Paris is Burning, filmed by white, lesbian filmmaker Jennie Livingston. It tells the story of young, queer and trans folx — primarily black and latinx — in the 1980s New York ball scene. The movie proved successful on the festival circuit, and brought a level of popular attention to the language, style, movements, and performativity of balls. Paris is Burning has proved long-lasting in its influence, crossing generations and communities. But Livingston has been criticized for exploiting the people she featured, and for profiting from the access and trust she gained.

Here’s an excellent contextual article with more information about the film and its continuing controversies. An excerpt:

[Jamel] Prodigy considers Livingston’s film – which he first saw in 1997 – as a foundational text. “I think it’s great, and very insightful,” he says. Yet he’s equally keen to point out to new viewers that Paris is Burning is not where the story finishes.

“Jennie’s film ended with a sad undertone, and I think our message is much more powerful than the impression that she left. We are an inspirational, creative and resilient community. This is 24 years later. There have been advancements in [treating] HIV, to which a lot of characters from the scene, and Jennie’s film [including Corey, Willi Ninja, and Jamel’s one-time House mother Octavia Saint-Laurent] succumbed. We’re all over the media. If it wasn’t for ballroom, there would be no Laverne Cox or [transgender activist and dancer] Giselle Xtravangza. It’s time to show that we have prevailed. It’s time to show that it’s not a sad story.” He mentions in passing Wolfgang Busch’s unofficial 2006 follow-up How Do I Look?, but says: “I don’t think it did justice in terms of including the point of view of the community.”

“A foundational text.”
We might also think about Paris is Burning as one of Wig Out!’s countertexts. (I appreciate Lucy Rose Coren’s definition: a countertext is a “alternate center of gravity that exerts influence over the trajectory of a production process.”) That is, the film is a cultural artifact in direct, contextual dialogue with the play — for the playwright, the characters, and for many audience members.

But Wig Out! is not Paris is Burning. It’s not an adaptation of the movie’s stories, nor is it really an homage, per se. But the film does provide useful background, even as we remember it was a partial snapshot of a rich and multifacted subculture.

Stream Paris is Burning on YouTube (embedded below) or via Netflix.

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