Why Is Paris Still Burning?
Even 25 years after its initial release, the iconic documentary Paris Is Burning continues to cause major splashes of controversy. The cult film is scheduled to receive a free anniversary screening this summer by Brooklyn-based non-profit organization BRIC, but it has been met with widespread backlash through online protest. A film concerning the underground world of the LGBT community would hardly seem able to generate a stir in today’s day and age, but nevertheless, the severity of the blowback from the event may potentially cancel it all together. We can’t help but wonder, why is Paris still burning?
For those that have yet to experience the splendor of the film, Paris Is Burning is a glimpse into the clandestine world of the Harlem Drag Balls of the 1980’s. United under the strife of the AIDS crisis, the urban, poor queer community banded together to create a culture that idealized glamor, luxury, and pride. Many of the customs and vernacular that characterized the ‘glitter balls’ have become overtly familiar in the public eye. Phrases like ‘fierce,’ ‘work,’ and ‘throwing shade’ all find their origin here. And thanks to Madonna and her liberal appropriating, the style of dance known as ‘voguing’ catapulted into the mainstream.
Fierceness aside, the film was of incredible importance upon its 1990 release for the visibility it brought to the communities involved: gay, transgender, African-American, and Latino, not to mention those inflicted with HIV in a time when a positive diagnosis was met with open discrimination and fear. It helped pave the way for some of today’s most prominent figures within the LGBT umbrella, such as RuPaul, who continues to pay the film heritage in every single episode of Drag Race. It has become a vital tool in the organization of gay and trans youth, and it remains a piercing dissection of the age-old oppressors of gender, race, and class.
It is with a touch of irony then that the recent BRIC event controversy is grounded in the same concepts that mark the film’s importance: visibility and representation. The event is scheduled to feature a discussion between the film’s director Jennie Livingston and ex El Tigre member JD Samson, but an online petition lambasted these decisions, uniting under the hashtag #ParisisBurnt. Calling for the immediate cancellation of the event, the offended parties argued that an utter lack of a queer voice of color in the event’s presentation is an insult, and that guest speakers should be culled from the existing Drag Ball scene, not a former Riot Grrrl band.
An even more radical faction of those opposed have pushed to ban the screening on the basis of the film itself. Livingston, who directed the feature upon her exit from NYU’s film school, received widespread praise for the film, yet none of the featured subjects received any compensation in the film’s subsequent success. While this is certainly not a standard in the world of documentaries, many are offended by the filmmaker’s failure to acknowledge the squalor in which the subjects lived after reaping the rewards.
Livingston directly addressed the event’s challengers in saying via Facebook that she has been “dialoguing about this film for 24 years and [is] open to critique and conversation.” Citing her lack of administration in the project, protestors then moved to BRIC itself, who have stated that they are now “reaching out to organizations and individuals to help us consider program changes.” The protestors seem to have won their battle, the programming for the event is being drastically restructured. But where does that leave them in the war of visibility? Advocating for a better representation in a panel discussion is a proactive step to say the least, but striking the film from the roster entirely would be tantamount to denying the film its legacy. It remains as potent as it did in 1990; simultaneously exposing and honoring the traditions and legacies of the sisters who came before us, teaching us that the greatest goal in life is to achieve “opulence, you own everything.”