Jennie Livingston’s seminal Harlem ballroom documentary Paris is Burning came out in 1990, just as the country’s gay rights movement was hitting its stride. It portrayed ballroom as an escape, a way for locally popular drag queens like Dorien Corey and Paris Duprée to live out the fantasy of being a worldwide superstar. At the same time, the AIDS epidemic was, after years of governmental neglect, finally being recognized as a public health issue. The previous year, the epidemic had hit the disturbing milestone of 100,000 reported cases of AIDS in the US alone, which the CDC considered to be a low estimate. That same year the FDA approved the use of AZT to treat pediatric AIDS. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, which federally defined marriage as the union between one man and one woman.
Ballroom as an escape
This history is important to keep in mind, now that Kiki, the intellectual sequel to Paris is Burning, has picked up where its predecessor left off. The documentary (which had its New York City premiere last week during the Red Bull Music Academy Festival) takes place several decades after Paris is Burning, and much has yet to change: the world is still hostile toward young black people, and especially young, black, queer people. But much more has changed dramatically, and while Paris is Burning remains an important cultural institution, it can’t capture the progress that has happened since. The performers in Paris is Burning were sometimes guarded and abrasive, proud of their ability to craft cutting insults through a haze of cigarette smoke; Kiki’s players are more inclusive, a gentler but equally brave generation. Director Sara Jordenö and co-writer Twiggy Pucci Garçon understand this; their documentation of the Kiki community, filmed over the course of four years, creates a new artifact of ballroom culture that is illuminating, warm, optimistic, heartbreaking, and uniquely contemporary.
Spanish Harlem’s El Museo del Barrio hosted the premiere, a dozen or so blocks from where much of the film was shot. Inside its theater, under ornate murals of fairy tale tableaus and elfin creatures the house packed in a mix of curious newcomers, friends of the film, and many of the stars themselves. It was the epitome of a hometown screening. Before the film began, Jordenö and Garçon introduced each other and thanked the cast for their work. Garçon's mother was in the audience, and when he thanked her, the crowd cheered as if she were their own mother. As the lights lowered, those involved with the film started buzzing with excitement. And once the documentary began, that excitement slowly ebbed back to the rest of the audience.
The Kiki scene is composed of a system of "houses," or teams, the members of which compete in voguing competitions for cash prizes. The community, which often feels like a micro-government, was built for and run by mainly black LGBTQ youth, many of whom view the scene as a stand-in for their own families. Kiki has an activist mindset; the community is dedicated to educating its members about HIV, prioritizing mental health, fighting homelessness, and creating safe spaces for anyone who might need one.
Attitudes and approaches to activism have changed dramatically
The backdrop of Kiki could’ve been pulled straight from Paris is Burning: on the streets of Harlem, the Hudson River Piers, bodegas, and gymnasiums. (In one scene, a ballroom regular named Chris talks about coming out to his father while sitting in a barbershop, a setting that’s become a symbol of masculine seclusion in many communities). But in the past 26 years, attitudes and approaches to activism have changed dramatically. As the documentary follows several members of this new generation, we see the continuing issues of LGBTQ rights and representation through their eyes. Garçon, in addition to co-writing, plays a key role in the film as a leader in the community, an aspirational figure who has been a guest at the White House, but is still invested in making changes in the neighborhood he grew up in. Then there’s Gia Love, who, in 2012, says she doesn’t identify as trans, and feels she can only publicly present the way she wants to when she’s not alone. Now, Gia proudly identifies as trans. In community discussions, she’s not afraid to argue opposing viewpoints (When one activist tries to discourage trans women from going into sex work, she says being an escort is just like any other form of labor). Chi Chi Mizrahi, a young gay man who struggled with drug addiction before he found a connection with the kids dancing at the piers, now acts as a mentor to younger members. Mizrahi has a deep connection to a trans woman named Izana "Zariya" Vidal, who was kicked out of her home after she told her mother she was trans. Zariya’s past is described as one of alienation and loneliness, until she found the Kiki community.
Sometimes it can feel striking that someone hasn’t already made this documentary — a check-in with Paris is Burning feels overdue. On the other hand, Kiki probably couldn’t have happened at any other time. The film's timeline overlaps with the Supreme Court’s decision last year to legalize gay marriage on a federal level. Speaking about the decision, Gia Love notes that it’s really a victory for gay white men — it’s not the final, or the most important, battle for the black LGBTQ community. Marginalized people have always attempted to work within systems that oppress them, she says, and instead, it’s time to start creating new systems. Kiki is one of those systems, and Kiki is its big, bold reveal to a world that still might not be ready for it.
But Kiki is really a documentary about joy. In one scene, Mizrahi goes to a discount clothing store to buy a pair of shoes for a ballroom competition. He selects a women’s pair of black boots with a high, chunky heel (size 10), and struts around the store’s drab racks. An older woman stares at Mizrahi as he kicks his heels up at the camera, but he doesn’t seem to notice. "They always look at me like I’m crazy," he says with a grin. This is what Kiki does; it gives its members the confidence that comes with being a part of a community, even in spaces where others are still not quite convinced they belong.Kiki is set for a wide release later this year.
Photography by Amelia Krales
Correction, May 6th, 9:07AM ET: An earlier version of this article said that Gia Love didn't identify as trans. She previously said she didn't identify as trans in 2012, but now she does. We regret the error.