Paris is Burning is a documentary by Jennie Livingston about queer ball scene, best described as underground drag shows or pageants put on by queer persons of color, during the late 1980s. The documentary explores the lives of a variety of gay and transgendered people of color who participated in these balls. One of the central claims made by the film is that the ball had its own unique culture. Throughout the film the ballroom and the culture surrounding it are described as a kind of safe haven for queer people of color, who have been rejected from their families or communities due to homophobia and/or transphobia. The documentary also emphasizes the collaborative efforts on the part of these persons to help each other economically, given that many of them are often from poor backgrounds or became poor after having to leave their families.
One of the most provocative points in the film was the emphasis on the ballroom as a space in which queer people of color can perform lifestyles that they desire but are often unable to achieve due to their status in society. I found this point particularly provocative because it captured the variety of disadvantages that queer people of color often face, including poverty, homelessness, rejection from mainstream society, and rejection from their respective communities. Centered on this point, the documentary was able to shed light on the difficulties of being lower class, a person of color, and being queer all at once. Highlighting these intersections rather than dealing with these issues separately sent a very salient message about complexity of queer identities.
In addition, the filmmaker allowed for the ball participants to speak for themselves rather than filming it in a way that allowed for the interjection of academics, psychologists, or other professionals, whose voices are often included in documentary films to provide expert opinions on the topic. The lack of an “expert,” helped to legitimize the opinions expressed by the ball participants, rendering them experts on their own experience. In many ways this documentary format helped to disrupt the social structures, which do not privilege the voices of lower class persons, particularly queer youth of color. The format used by Livingston forced an audience to trust the narration of on the queer subjects in the film, thus presenting them as authorities on topics of gender expression, sexuality, race, and class (based on their own lived experiences).
In the case of this documentary, the filmmaker had to have the ball participants explain ball culture and there experiences as queer people of color using their own terms, definitions, and reasoning, because at the time there were few if any “experts” queer youth of color. In the present when we have “experts” who study broader sections of society and culture than ever before, is it still necessary to allow the subjects to speak, even when the subject is an underprivileged, uneducated, youth? Is it necessary to prioritize the subject’s voice over and expert’s analysis?