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  • Laura Murphy

Race and Ethnicity in 'Paris is Burning'

credit: Kamaji Ogino

‘Black people have a hard time getting anywhere and those that do are usually straight.’

This remark from performer and fashion designer Dorian Corey represents the th­ematic prevalence of race in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary film Paris is Burning, and how it becomes clearly intertwined with the also primary focus of gender/sexuality. The film explores the golden age of the drag ball scene in 1980s New York, focusing specifically on members of Black and Latinx communities within it. In the documentary, the issue of race is presented in numerous ways, however, whilst Livingston undoubtedly gives valuable media exposure to the subculture, generic documentary techniques - alongside the dynamic of a white director externally presenting people of colour to largely white audiences - has led to notably mixed public and critical opinion on the film.

Paris is Burning as a Platform for the Black and Latinx Community

Livingston’s Paris is Burning is often cited as a significant point of debate: ‘few documentaries can claim to have sparked as much discussion and controversy’ – the portrayal of race in the film is similarly multi-layered. The context of its release, just as the 1980s drew to a close in the US, is exceptionally relevant when considering how the film explores race. In view of the racial tensions in the US, the decision to focus on documenting specifically Black drag acts is progressive in itself – as Feldman points out, ‘the Black and Latinx queens represented in Paris is Burning […] are living on the fringes of society in multiple ways’, one being on account of race. Livingston challenged conventional racist attitudes of the era by providing a media platform for these figures, allowing audiences to understand the real experiences of a group who usually were avoided at best, and at worst attacked and violently persecuted. Due to its conformity to the documentary genre, communicating without fictionalisation, it could be construed that the director aims to treat the subject with integrity and honesty, not purely as dramatic entertainment. The choice to interview and explore the lives of people of colour participating in drag, rather than their white counterparts, is a deliberate and especially bold one from Livingston, given looming racist social attitudes.

credit: Cottonbro

Paris is Burning was added to the National Film Registry for 2016 by the Library of Congress, being explicitly appreciated as ‘“culturally, historically or aesthetically” important’ - proving its influential social reach and emphasising particularly the value of this space for Black performers to present their realities. At this time, being a person of colour usually meant a guaranteed lack of access to this type of media platform, which was much more readily available to white people in the same position; therefore, Livingston directly furnishing this opportunity represents race as a vital issue, and, in theory, encourages the population to listen to people of colour equally. Numerous figures from the scene are given airtime, and Livingston’s inclusion of dynamic performance clips alongside interviews effectively portrays the vivacious drag balls while providing an opportunity for speech. Allowing the performers to convey both their talent and emotions implies genuine acknowledgment of their contributions. On this one front, Livingston’s Paris is Burning combats underrepresentation of people of colour.

Livingston as an ‘outsider looking in’

However, subject matter alone isn’t enough to formulate an unproblematic and insightful representation of race. Much of the criticism Paris is Burning received was centred around the manner in which Livingston, as an ‘outsider looking in’ in terms of race, represents the issue. Writing in 1992, bell hooks argued that the director’s position as a white person depicting Black experiences allows her to assume a seemingly innocent position. This directorial disconnection from the film’s content reflects the ability white people possess to remove themselves from racially tense situations as they wish, while people of colour cannot escape them. The nature of the documentary genre exacerbates this: The film features aspects of the traditional observational mode, which tends to appear unobtrusive in its exploration of subjects. This includes masked interviews, which emphasise the director’s absence – both visually and orally. These interviews allow Livingston to absolve herself of a responsibility to explicitly comment, appearing to retain a neutrality as the audience hears retelling of hardships faced by the community. In the words of bell hooks, Livingston inhabits ‘a privileged location of “innocence”’, which in turn influences the way that race is presented.

The subordinate social position of people of colour in 1980s America, and related public opinion, meant drag balls functioned as a rare safe space for those involved, a chance for their self-expression in a society that forcefully prevents it. Considering the context of racial inequality, being ‘largely ostracised from mainstream society’, the willingness of interviewees to speak candidly about their roles in the documentary demonstrates courage. Drag queens taking this opportunity to proudly display their culture on film clarifies their resilient responses to the contentious issues surrounding their experiences, particularly as people of colour. However, Livingston doesn’t equally put herself out there, as she undertakes a completely external role – her lack of clear presence throughout results in no indication of her thoughts on the fact that her subjects are victims of discrimination. The documentary is edited in a way which allows Livingston to avoid direct personal engagement and deflect focus onto those interviewed, who are by contrast visually and orally present. While providing a platform for Black voices is constructive in combatting oppression, a crucial opportunity is missed to use her privilege as a white woman, to distinctly exhibit solidarity and be an outspoken ally. In terms of race representation, this deflection gives the impression that race discrimination is the issue solely of those who fall victim to it. hooks acknowledges the serious racial implications as she describes the directorial position as ‘imperial.’

credit: Alejandro Cartagena

Black courage, white absence

One result of this racial dynamic in Paris is Burning is a lack of interrogation into the concept of whiteness as a social position and into its relevance in debates around colour discrimination. Without this, why the stars are in an inferior social position – and who exactly inhabits the contrasting superior – isn't explicitly conveyed. Again, this is facilitated by the almost complete lack of visible appearances from white people. In turn, there is no obligation for acknowledgement of the damaging attitudes harboured by members of their own community. In this sense, those interviewed are required to be representatives of their race, retelling lived experiences, but an equivalent isn’t required from white people to be representatives of their race, who have inflicted severe damage. Unfortunately, due to how this is handled, a beneficial opportunity for in-depth exploration of pertinent issues is missed, preventing what could be more insightful race representation.

Venus Xtravaganza and Non-Intersectionality

A well-renowned Latina member of the scene, Venus Xtravaganza, is a notable feature of the documentary, and she explicitly expresses a desire to be ‘a spoiled, rich white girl.’ This quotation foregrounds the social attitude that femininity is the sole property of cis white women, in turn suggesting its unattainability specifically to men and transgender women of colour, including many of the queens. Her specification of ‘white’, and observation that ‘they get what they want, whenever they want it’, epitomises the inextricable link between race struggles and sexuality/gender identity struggles - a significant lack of intersectionality at this time exacerbates social inferiority for those battling with both. Venus demonstrates well-established awareness of her own unprivileged position as a result of these struggles, made increasingly tragic in retrospect by her brutal murder. This exact problem is echoed by hooks, observing that the film’s ‘visual representations of womanhood [...] are, with rare exceptions, of white women.’ This not only reflects society’s intolerance towards Black drag acts, but also to Black women, distinctly marking this issue out as race related. This idea of exclusivity is presented repeatedly in Paris is Burning without being adequately examined from the viewpoint of whiteness, which the director inhabits, and, in my view, this causes the race representation to fall drastically short of the ground-breaking conclusions it could’ve potentially achieved if, as hooks wrote, whiteness was interrogated.

credit: Cottonbro

Livingston depicting the drag culture as a spectacle

Throughout the documentary, the focus on the drag ball subculture takes on an evident tone of spectacle, predominantly as a result of the way scenes are cut together, and what content is intentionally included and excluded by Livingston. Another prominent comment in bell hooks’ chapter, she takes issue with how the editing imbues the content with a sense that the lives featured are purely for entertainment. She details the serious consequences, including white audiences being ‘“entertained” and “pleasured” by scenes [she] viewed as sad and at times tragic.’ This presentation of the community as spectacle directly works to undermine the plight of the racially victimised, as instances which reveal the reality of that struggle are often omitted or disregarded in favour of glamorous scenes of ‘fashion runways and vogue dancing battles.’ In this way, the action centres around the stylised performance aspects and presents those included as one-dimensional figures, solely as amusement for the curious gaze of outsiders by detaching them from elements of life outside the alluring drag balls. The sections depicting Venus’ death – which happens during the shooting in Paris is Burning – are the most shockingly apparent example of this. hooks remarks on the lack of grief for the Latina performer and the implications of this: ‘Having served the purpose of “spectacle” the film abandons him/her. [...] To put it crassly, her dying is upstaged by spectacle.’ hooks distinctly criticises this element of Livingston’s direction due to the implied lack of humanity it grants the film’s subjects. This absence of humanity and connectedness, as the documentary suggests, ‘characters are estranged from any [other] community’, is detrimental in terms of race representation. As a white director, Livingston makes spectacles of those included, doing nothing in this sense to influence white viewers to find them relatable, which further widens societal disparity. These damaging filmic choices further encourage the 'othering’ of people of colour.

We can do better

All in all, in the context of its production, the concept of a film covering the experience of drag performers of colour sounds promising. However, in practice, Livingston makes some significant decisions in the creation of Paris is Burning which are detrimental to the representation of race offered. I agree with dancer Jamel Prodigy, who is quoted as saying Paris is Burningis not where the story finishes’ - although it sparked necessary discussion, due to its shortcomings, there was still much work to be done following its release. The act of providing marginalised groups with a media platform isn’t progressive and constructive enough by itself, especially as we look back at the film now, and Livingston certainly could have approached the issue with a more developed and reflected awareness of her own position.

Words by Laura Murphy

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