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Critique Essay History Humanities Nonfiction Theory

“Reading Realness: Paris is Burning, Wildness, and Queer and Transgender Documentary Practice”

By Eve Oishi, 2015

In 1991, Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (1990) won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, positioning it squarely at the center of a movement that B. Ruby Rich first named the “New Queer Cinema,” an emerging group of independent films marked by a diversity and range of styles and subject matter but connected by a “common style.” “Call it ‘Homo Pomo’ ” Rich wrote in an influential 1992 article. “[T]here are traces in all of them of appropriation and pastiche, irony, as well as a reworking of history with social constructionism very much in mind” (Rich, 2004: 16). In the intervening years, Paris Is Burning has become one of the most well-known and influential documentaries on queer and transgender people of color for its commercial success1 and its role in introducing and popularizing black and Latino drag ball culture and vernacular to a mainstream audience, as well as for critiques leveled at the film from scholars and activists who were troubled by what they saw as an exploitative and unrealistic depiction of a vulnerable population.2 As I discuss later in this essay, the director Jennie Livingston sustained criticism for her decision to remain an invisible, off-camera presence in the film, a strategy that, together with the already fraught politics of a film about lowincome gay and trans people of color made by an economically privileged white lesbian, linked the film in some critics’ eyes with earlier ethnographic films whose exoticizing gaze reproduced the unequal power relations they often sought to expose. The film’s introduction of black and Latino New York ball culture and the complex performances, competitions, and judging rituals around various categories of “realness,” to a broader audience also situated the film as a key text to be mined by queer studies scholars to develop theories about representation, performance, realness, and reality.

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