Week 9: Paris is Burning

Although I haven’t seen Livingston’s film outside of college classes, several professors decide to screen this film as part of a discussion on queerness, ethnography, documentary filmmaking, and race. I read bell hooks’ essay on the film before, and I always find the focus on the director in relation to such paramount cultural work intriguing. Within the independent world of filmmaking, Livingston amounted to providing the subjects of the film to appear as themselves, showcasing one’s own traditions and social culture. This film provided a foreground of theoretical work and essays that further examine not only race in queer filmmaking, but the representation of subjects in relation to the spectator identifying (or not identifying) with it. The fact that I’ve seen the film in several of my classes points to its relevance in conversations on hegemony and self-representation and a continuous dialogue on race and sexual performativity.

In contrast to hooks’ criticism of Livingston, I found Hilderbrand’s chapter as a very impactful critique of hooks’ arguments. Most importantly, the contrast Hilderbrand made between hooks’ and Butler’s perspective on the film raises critical questions as to what and how the negotiation between the insiders and the outsiders is handled through the film. This contrast illustrates the ethical questions of Livington’s documentary – who has the right to watch the film, how we can critically interpret the film. Hilderbrand writes, “I’ve never cared much about what white straight audiences make of the film because it has always mattered to audiences of queers, people of color, and queers of color. This is our film,” (134). Through this attachment to the film, the ethical questions are raised but do not change the fact that this film still belongs to the insiders – the subjects – of the ball room sphere rather than the white straight audiences who enjoyed the film.

This chapter notes that the result of the documentary’s growth in relevance within academia and its critical acclaim amounted to a problematic sense of popularity. It is because of its popularity that scholars like hooks bring criticism to the discussion, a perspective that focuses on the director herself rather than the film and its subjects. However, regardless of the film’s popularity, Livingston provides marginalized group of people a window to showcase their cultures, their own sense of survival in society. Within its cultural work, Paris is Burning continues to illustrate its importance within historical specificity and its attempt to showcase underrepresented lives – a cinematic intention that is prevalent to impact the social sphere of queer and colored identities.

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