by Kareem Reid
One of the many significant moments in Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s seminal portrait of late 1980s New York, was a montage of New York’s wealthiest going about their daily lives, walking the streets, shopping and appearing to enjoy themselves. It is in these moments where the disparity, the distance travelled from the night time world of Harlem’s ballroom scene to the bustling monstrosity of 5th Avenue, centre of commerce and American luxury, makes itself apparent.
While the film certainly delights in the aesthetic pleasures of voguing, like all beautiful and strange phenomena, there are a panoply of social comments that, 25 years on, resonate with deeper poignancy and urgency when we consider how influential this particular community of black and latino men and women have been on popular culture and image-making. With roots that trace back to the Harlem Renaissance, retrospectively, what has changed in the way we see black stars and performers?
Ballroom icons Pepper Labeija, Octavia St. Laurent, Venus Xtravaganza and Dorian Corey all give charming interviews laced with barbed anecdotes about societal pressures, implemented by racial and economic barriers, that forced them underground. Many of them speak of being forced to leave their families behind for fear of violence and going into sex work as a means for survival. In another poignant moment, Labeija remembers her mother’s vicious response to discovering her mink coat – a symbol of glamour and womanhood if there ever was one. The coat is set on fire in a spiteful gesture of denial and rejection.
Venus Xtravaganza is one of many shunned transgender youths forced to move to a metropolitan area with hopes of survival and support. Near the film’s end, Angie Xtravaganza laments her ‘daughter’ Venus’s murder, “That’s part of being a transsexual in New York and surviving.”
2016 is currently the deadliest year on record for trans murders in the US; last year six trans women were murdered less than eight weeks apart. 25 years after Paris is Burning’s release, homelessness among black and latino LGBT youth is still disproportionately high. Pepper explains her role as mother to the children of the House of Labeija, telling us “some of them don’t even eat, they come to balls starving and they sleep on the pier or wherever, they don’t have a home to go to.”
Paris is Burning serves as a cultural document that looks at how fandom and desire manifest and function within black and latino communities. How have the desires of New York’s black and latino gay and trans underground been shaped by American and European ideals of gender and beauty? A collective desire for fame and fortune that is rooted in emotional, material and social deprivation. An impression that exposure and visibility would lead to financial gain and social status fanned the flaming controversy around the film’s release and aftermath, that it continued the tradition of the routine exploitation of black LGBT performers, an underground network that continues, 25 years after the film’s release, to support and sustain each other without the support or attention from mainstream figures and media.
As part of the film’s introduction into this underground scene, a friend of St. Laurent explains,“Balls are as close to reality as we’re gonna get to fame, fortune and stardom, spotlights.” The reality of inhabiting a body that is both black and queer is explored in nuanced ways throughout the film. One method of navigation and survival is the development of the Realness categories, an explosion of the illusory and performative aspects of gender presentation and a poignant look at the lengths bodies living on the margins of society survive, chameleon-like, “blending in” to heteronormativity. A network of performers and creators with its own value system that had to be made in order to survive a violently homophobic society – a world where “Liz Taylor is famous, so is Pepper Labeija.” Labeija explains, “Balls are our fantasy of being a superstar at the Oscars or a supermodel on the runway.” In the film’s final scenes, she playfully recreates Hollywood glamour with a reference to Sunset Boulevard, “Bring the camera closer, I’m ready for my closeup” – a loving reference to an image industry that never made space for Labeija and her house or many other marginalised people. “I’ve got more grand prizes than all the rest.” Her mentoring at her house of Labeija is an activism that empowers and sustains her community.
Perhaps the most conventionally famous performer in the film’s dynamic roster with the most grand prizes outside of the ballroom is Willi Ninja. His revolutionary talent and vision as a voguing choreographer and performer, drawing references from pantomime, hieroglyphics and gymnastics propelled him into a visibility that made him a “real life” celebrity. “I want it to be known worldwide and I want to be on top of it when it hits.” He is positioned as the success story, the rags to riches narrative – in a montage during the film’s epilogue, he shows off a Jean-Paul Gaultier earring bought in Japan – early in the film during a montage of fashion magazine covers and luxury department store interiors he narrates “I’d always see the way rich people lived, it would slap me in the face, I never felt comfortable being poor, seeing the way people on Dynasty lived – why did these people have so much and I didn’t? I always felt cheated.”
Willi Ninja, Octavia St. Laurent and Dorian Corey all succumbed to HIV, while Venus Xtravaganza was murdered during the narrative arc of Paris is Burning. Their deaths are part of a largely ignored but increasing statistic of black LGBT deaths, 2016 being the deadliest year on record for reported murders of trans women. This is a social issue specific to this community who idolise, covet and resent in equal measure the comparatively immense privilege afforded to their white counterparts – Venus puts it bluntly, “I’d like to be a rich spoiled white girl.”
The gruelling day to day experiences of survival seen in Paris is Burning illuminate a bleak comparison to those with privileges and social status in “the straight world, the real world” as a microcosm of how heterosexual black stars were marginalised throughout the inception and development of Hollywood, the advent of television, fashion imagery and music videos. The most experienced voice in this tapestry of Paris is Burning, Dorian Corey, frankly admits that during his time as a young drag queen participating in the legendary, inaugural balls of the 60s, “I should have wanted to look like Lena Horne, but back then black stars were stigmatised, none of us wanted to look like Lena Horne, we wanted to look like Marilyn Monroe.” He archly observes a community that has changed generational but still faces the same pressures of homophobia and transphobia: “Black people have a hard time getting anywhere and those that do are usually straight.”
Ballrooms still exist and thrive today, like 25 years ago, the descendants of the Harlem Renaissance have inherited the realities queer black and latino people have always faced in urban, metropolitan, poor neighbourhoods. Ballroom culture developed to what it is because of racism within the pageant and nightlife scene. Coming together to create spaces to fulfil the basic human need of safety and family is a ritual we all understand the importance of. They have created their own institutions and homes in states of crisis and homelessness. A resilient community that, while continually being left out of the financial gain from their influential creations, continues to find new and creative ways to survive.
Kareem Reid is an artist, cultural critic and creative director of Body Party based in London. His work examines the intersections between nightlife, black cultural production and identity.
The Black Star series of articles will coincide with BFI’s Black Star film series. Over ten weeks, we will bring you articles which explore the films in the series, the issues they highlight and the stars who have played such an important role in the history of film. Curated by Grace Barber-Plentie.
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