The Queen (1968)

One of the reasons it was so easy to become an immediate fan of the competition reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race (admittedly as a late-comer) is that instantly felt familiar to me through the NYC ball culture documentary Paris is Burning. The runway categories, library reads, and aggressive voguing gyrations of the show felt like they were directly lifted from Paris is Burning’s most iconic moments – just smartly adapted to a modern reality competition show format. It turns out that was an incomplete picture of where Drag Race was pulling its inspiration from, as I recently discovered while watching the new digital restoration of the late-60s drag pageant documentary The Queen. Predating both Paris is Burning and, incredibly, the Stonewall riots, The Queen is a behind-the-scenes tour of a drag competition in 1960s New York City. It’s such an early glimpse of the scene that it was Rated X by the MPAA largely for its cohabitation of black and white contestants backstage before racial segregation was officially outlawed by The Supreme Court. It’s an invaluable artifact from a pageant drag tradition that hasn’t changed a lick over the last half-century even though the world has drastically changed around it. The trail back from Drag Race to Paris is Burning directly leads even further back here – a clear lineage of the exact kind of D.I.Y. spectacle & glamour in gender performance entertainment you can still see at your local drag bar this very weekend.

Of course, because it’s such an early snapshot of the pageant drag scene, the film is narrated with a kind of Drag 101 overview (not to mention outdated in its discussions of transgender identity politics). Mostly, though, it’s structured like a lost early season of Drag Race. At first, it feels as if there are way too many contestants for any one individual personality to shine through, but the major players and the obvious winner emerge over time in a slow-moving meltdown of hurt feelings, petty jealousies, and pure D.I.Y. glamour. Celebrity guests like Andy Warhol briefly appear to boost ratings. Life or Death wig emergencies heighten the backstage drama. Crystal LaBejia (whose infamous drag house would later feature prominently in Paris is Burning) reads a younger queen to filth for not having paid her dues. There’s even a controversy where the RuPaul-like figurehead of the pageant, Sabrina, is accused of rigging the results to crown her preferred queen in a sham of a competition. You could almost map out a Drag Race season’s worth of ficitional Reddit message board discussions of the competition and pass it off as critique of a recent era of the show. The only thing that’s noticeably out of date on the surface (as opposed to lurking in its era’s politics) is the types of drag represented onstage are much more limited in their variety – encompassed entirely by the Passing, glamorous concerns of the old pageant drag traditions that defined the artform for me growing up in the South. The exponential popularity of Paris is Burning & Drag Race has expanded the definition of what drag is (and the possibilities of what it can be) in recent years, but the competition format here indicates that the structure of its presentation has largely remained the same for a long time now.

The similarities between these three drag culture touchstones wouldn’t be so remarkable if there were more documents of the artform over time, so a lot of The Queen’s value as an artifact is how rare its backstage 1960s access truly is. Still, the film has its own artistic merits outside its place in a drag competition lineage, even if it’s more functional & matter-of-fact than it is avant-garde. Even in its new restoration it has the overly rich color & wildly out-of-focus drunkenness of an old Polaroid preserved in the back of a forgotten photo album, seeing the light of day for the first time in decades. Because the backstage spaces it crams into to document the drag show’s contestants are so cramped, it’s often shot from drastically low angles, incredibly close to its subjects’ faces. The audience often takes on the POV of a lost toddler who stumbled behind the scenes of a Vegas floor show. There’s plenty of beauty & glamor, but also cacophonous chatter & an overwhelming funhouse mirror effect in its closeups of half-dressed performers. You won’t find that kind of guerilla filmmaking excitement in the crisp, digital gaudiness of Drag Race, which has honed this drag competition format down to a machine-like precision. That tangible presence of humanity behind the camera overrides the sense that Sabrina is attempting to over-produce the narrative of her supposedly non-rigged competition à la RuPaul, and The Queen gradually takes on its own look & tone separate from its drag competition descendants to follow as a result. It’s both unique & traditionalist, warmly familiar & shockingly fresh – a vibrant relic from a drag lineage that’s proving to be eternal.

-Brandon Ledet

Kiki (2017)

By billing itself as a “spiritual sequel” to the landmark documentary Paris is Burning, the Swiss-American co-production Kiki smartly brought a lot of attention to itself & its political cause in an overcrowded media market where most low budget documentaries slip by without notice. It also set the expectation of what it can deliver to an impossibly high standard. Kiki is not as significant of a work as Paris is Burning. It’s not even close. Not only has the initial wow factor of what Paris is Burning managed to unearth faded with time, but the switch from celluloid film to digital media has significantly hindered the quality of imagery in this distant echo of an unofficial sequel. Still, as a modern check-in on the state of the NYC ballroom and voguing scene decades after that landmark work and a document of the heights of visual art being achieved within that subculture today, it’s a worthwhile addition to the classic doc’s legacy.

Paris is Burning documented the well-established “houses” & long term history of ballroom culture in NYC, a pocket of queer society fiercely dedicated both to artistic expression (mostly through fashion & dance) and self-preserving loyalty. Kiki focuses on a much more specific subset within that larger scene. Its title not only refers to the communal act of partying or hanging out, but also defines a subset of ball culture participants who are remarkably young and, unlike the older houses profiled in the previous film, unestablished. A large population of the Kiki world are underage PoC, abused or abandoned by their parents for being homosexual or trans. The “house mothers” who take them under their wing and help them prepare for ballroom & voguing competition are barely older than them, mostly in their early 20s, and that age range is largely what separates the “Kiki” scene from traditional ballroom culture.

What’s most exciting about Kiki as a film is in knowing that the ballroom scene does have this young blood flowing through its veins, keeping it alive. In a world where there aren’t many true countercultures left untouched by homogenized pop culture at large, it’s reassuring to know that the NYC ballroom scene is still as vibrantly punk as ever. You can see reflections of what Paris is Burning first documented in mainstream outlets like Ru Paul’s Drag Race today, but for the most part the culture had been left untouched & far from normalized. The aggressively defiant fashion, death drops, and openly expressed sexuality documented in Kiki is still punk as fuck and still a wonder to behold. The best moments of the film are when it merely documents & broadcasts the fine art achievement of the in-their-infancy houses like House P.U.C.C.I., House Juicy Culture, House Unbound Cartier, etc.

Although a respectable ambition, it’s the film’s overt attempts at political statement that drag down its overall value as an art piece. Kiki rightfully has a lot to say about queer and trans identity in modern America. Since it follows a younger set of subjects, it even has terms like “triggered” and “gender fluidity” in its arsenal to discuss these issues effectively. When it dares to flash back to images pulled directly directly from Paris is Burning, however, you get the sense that these politics might have been better served if they were allowed to crop up naturally while focusing on what makes this community’s highly specific POV special in the first place: ballroom culture. The issues discussed in the film are damn important, but by splitting its time between the less visually compelling political maneuvers that take place between the ballroom competitions and actually documenting the competitions​ themselves, the film ultimately feels a little weak and diluted, especially when compared to its spiritual predecessor.

Kiki makes some admirable maneuvers to improve on the Paris is Burning formula. It updates the soundtrack to a modern pop aggression provided by Qween Beat, deliberately puts its LGBTQ politics in the foreground of its subject, and goes as far as to include one of its interviewees in the production of the doc, correcting what many perceive as an exploitative element of Paris is Burning. Even with these positive alterations and additions, however, Kiki can never shake the feeling of being little more than an addendum or an epilogue to that superior work. It shines when it focus on the priceless visual art being produced in the ballroom subculture (sometimes even playing like a voguing-themed version of Girl Walk // All Day), allowing its politics to be passionately expressed in that display. When it strays from that task, however, it starts to feel a lot more like countless works we’ve already seen before. It’s horrifically upsetting that statements like “I am a person” should feel overtly political in a 2010s context, but I can’t shake the feeling that there are more interesting ways to say it than the way it’s handled in Kiki. Take, for instance, the way it’s expressed in the film it openly pays homage to at every turn.

-Brandon Ledet

Paris Is Burning (1990)

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Although the subject of the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning (ball culture) is unmistakably NYC-specific, it’s not difficult to see its connection to a more recent New Orleans trend: sissy bounce. There’s very little connecting the two geographically-disparate movements in the decade or so that separates them, but there’s still a similarly effortless punk spirit & vibrant defiance that binds them in my mind, a superficial connection or not. NYC ball culture was a fashion-minded escape fantasy for the city’s POC, queer, transgendered, and often homeless youth who used the platform to feel empowered instead of disenfranchised. Where sissy bounce offers New Orleans’ queer & transgendered POC youth access to the largely homophobic & hyper-masculine world of hip-hop, ball culture offered that same minority access to wealth & the world at large. That access may have been to more of a fantasy than a reality, but it was a transgressive fantasy that was so goddamn fabulously punk that there’s really nothing else like it, sissy bounce included.

We don’t have a worthy documentary about New Orleans’ sissy bounce culture yet, but there is a more than worthy NYC ball culture doc to be found in Paris Is Burning. As a culture, the film’s subject has everything necessary for a great film: sights (in the homemade fashion), sounds (in the music & dancing that accompanies the runway “voguing”), and narrative (in its long history as told through the eyes of old-timers who had occupied the scene decades before the film’s camera crew arrived in 1987). Part of what makes the film so arresting is its combination of both surface pleasures & much deeper, more meaningful aspects. Sure the film is stuffed with lush, beautiful fashion and the absurd hyroglypics-inspired dance moves of voguing, but there’s a lot of real heartbreak at the center of the culture’s need for escape.

These are marginalized people who’ve been abandoned by their families & society at large; they depend mostly on petty theft & sex work to get by. Although there is an aggressive, competitive aspect to ball culture, there’s also an intense comradery that includes makeshift families called “houses”. Ball competitors are seeking to better one another for a chance at a “legendary status” or at least a trophy for their troubles that night, but they also serve as their own support network, giving each other a place to go and something to look forward to when practically everything else has been stripped away. As the MC at one ball puts it to the more “vicious motherfuckers” in the crowd, “We’re not going to be shady, just fierce.” There’s a catty atmosphere on the surface of ball culture, but it’s a thin veneer on something much more thoughtful & fulfilling.

It’s a little sad, then, that the isolated act of voguing was assimilated & diluted into a much larger, uncaring pop culture by enterprising folks like Madonna the same way New Orleans’ bounce maneuver twerking was assimilated (poorly) by folks like Miley Cyrus. It’s sad that such a rich, complex culture had been boiled down to such a singular, somewhat superficial detail, but that’s often how mainstream success works. Part of what makes Paris is Burning so rewarding is that it arrived in time to capture that culture before it was exposed to the public at large. There’s still time for sissy bounce to receive the same reverent treatment , but not much. The recent national fetishization of twerking makes it feel like the moment has already passed. Of course, I may be oversimplifying both sissy bounce & ball culture by linking them with such a concrete tether, but I’m certainly not the first one to do so. There was even a huge event thrown last year celebrating their spiritual sisterhood. Although one had voguing & the other twerking and one was stationed in Harlem & the other in New Orleans, there’s still a rebellious, punk spirit of inclusivity for groups of young people who are normally excluded from everything. As one of the ball culture’s old timers puts it, “If more people went to balls and did less drugs the world would be a better place, wouldn’t it?” If balls were anything like the way they’re represented in the near-perfect Paris Is Burning, I’m inclined to agree.

-Brandon Ledet