Paris is Burning

I have seen this documentary more times than I can remember, and yet each time that I do there is another layer that is peeled away as I connect with it. In the excerpt from bell hooks’ book Black Looks: Race and Representation, she talks about how the black gay men shown attending and participating in the drag balls in Paris is Burning sought after the fetishized, idealized image of the white woman, and how white filmmaker Jennie Livingston positions the lives of these men as spectacle without providing adequate space to consider the racial and political aspects of their position and their identity in general. What especially stood out to me was her comment on how white audiences reacted to the film, noting it was “incredibly funny” and “Didn’t you just love it?”, as if because of the content black people should find it to be amazing even though it promotes white dominance and femininity as a white characteristic. As a black queer person, I am often expected to enjoy media purely because of the presence of black people on the screen, particularly if there are black queer people represented. For instance, as the film Moonlight took over film conversations, I was looked at in shock that I hadn’t already seen the film because it was “amazing” and featured a story about a black gay person. Granted, I deeply enjoyed the film–and the fact that the writing and directing was done by black artists–but the expectation that I was supposed to accept it based on its existence alone still leaves a bad taste in my mouth and speaks volumes about the progress we have yet to make regarding marginalized groups in film. Looking back to Paris is Burning, it’s the same issue –  putting a lens on black people does not make a film or filmmaker “progressive” and devoid of racist action; all it does is put a lens on them. Doing that is not enough.

 

-Gianna

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