Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary about the New York ball scene, has been argued over since the time of its release. The one thing I think everyone familiar with the movie can agree on is that it is enduring. As a portrait of queer POC interfacing with the harsh realities of white patriarchy, it is perpetually relevant (and made even more explicitly so via the rise of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has overtly referenced the film and implicitly shares much of its ethos). At this point, it seems like people will be debating this movie—and the ethics of a white filmmaker capturing and commodifying a world to which she was an outsider—until the end of time.
This week, Criterion released a special edition package of the film on Blu-ray and DVD. It includes a gorgeous restoration of the movie, new conversations with Livingston and subjects Sol Pendavis and Freddie Pendavis, and perhaps most tantalizingly, almost two hours of previously unseen outtakes (the bonus footage, in fact, runs longer than the 76-minute movie itself). Last week, I met up with Livingston, who I know well enough to consider a friend, to discuss her film. (Note: Livingston identifies as genderqueer and says she’s okay with “she” and “they” pronouns. I’ve opted to use the former in this piece.) Livingston has continued working, perhaps most notably directing an episode of Pose last season, but she has yet to release her second film (she continues to work on it). Paris Is Burning remains her sole feature.
We discussed her Paris process, which began with her photographing the New York ball scene in the ’80s—she’d spend some two years immersed in it before shooting her documentary. We talked about the enduring criticisms, as epitomized by bell hooks’s searing critique “Is Paris Burning?” She told me about her dealings with Miramax, the distribution company run by Harvey Weinstein that picked up Paris Is Burning after a successful New York run, her time in the industry, and why she feels she wasn’t afforded certain opportunities to progress in her career. An edited and condensed transcript is below.
JEZEBEL: Something that really struck me this most recent time watching it is that the film positions its subjects, Pepper LaBeija and Dorian Corey, in particular, as intellectuals. I’m sure this was not at all revelatory for people in the community or even people whose identities were adjacent to it, but in terms of representation of queer people (queer people of color, especially) in film, it was radical.
JENNIE LIVINGSTON: Can you imagine how hard it was to cut that movie? I worked with a great editor, Jonathan Oppenheim, and it was a good partnership because I really loved the ideas that they embodied. I loved Dorian and Pepper because they had those brains, because I was a nerd, and it was like, “Yeah, they can look at the world and sum it up.” But obviously, I loved the dance and the spectacle and the gender transformations and gender play. In the editorial process, [we accommodated] both—you want to fall in love with these people and you want to be entertained by the performances.
I think what some people who criticize the movie often miss is that if it ever seems glib or as though it’s rushing past certain ideas, it’s all in service of entertainment, which is exactly why it still resonates.
If it were dry, we wouldn’t be talking about it decades later.
Exactly. And I think if, as a green filmmaker making my first film, I had had my way, we wouldn’t be talking about it because I was like, “I just want to hear Dorian talk.” No one would have sat through it. Jonathan was also a young filmmaker, a young editor. He was ripe to build something that he could collaborate with a director to make something elegant. And we did make something elegant.
Were you drawn to this subject matter because of your gender identity and/or were you taught about your gender identity as a result of immersing yourself in this world?
Both. I think I was able to be in the world because of who I was and I think it also informed everything about who I thought I could become as a queer person, as a gender-fluid person, and really as an artist. The people that I met were artists of living. To take your body and remake yourself in an image that you feel you are or feel you need to be, that’s a great act of artistic transformation.
Paris Is Burning’s ethics have almost always been a part of the conversation about the film. I understand people’s sensitivity. I understand even assessing the system, saying, “Well, of course, a white person made this,” and being mad about that. Just being mad about the power structure. But for me, the practical implications of the adamantly negative critiques of this movie suggest that the movie shouldn’t exist. And even if you want to lambast the way it was put together, the archival nature of it alone makes it valuable.
That issue, I’ve thought a lot about it. The history of white people profiting from exploiting or selling or promoting black culture or culture that isn’t white, is a big history. I also feel like if we’re going to have a conversation about who gets to tell what stories, let’s have the whole conversation and not target my film or any particular film. Are we pissed that the director of 1917 didn’t go to war? Are we pissed that Barry Jenkins isn’t gay? You can’t be divisional and intersectional. I’m Jewish, I’m queer, I’m genderqueer—I’m not saying don’t discuss the racial component of who gets to tell what, but I’m not seeing any conversation about the film about Toni Morrison, which was directed by a white guy who was a friend of Toni Morrison. Or the film about Nina Simone, directed by a white woman. Those films are considered valuable. Have the conversation about Paris Is Burning, but include it in the context of how our medium and our world works.
I think there can be great worth in having an outsider perspective sometimes. I think the reason this movie speaks across generations and cultures is you break it down in such an elementary fashion: by vocabulary words.
Look, I was the artist, I made the film, I tried to make the film so it would be good. And then, people have a right to criticize it. I can ask questions why, but it’s weird when I read things, where people are completely leaving out facts—like the executive producer who paid for it, was black, does that matter? My film wasn’t shot with white money. Make an argument but do it with nuance, where you’re including facts that don’t support your argument that it was an exploitative endeavor.
And please don’t say I live in luxury housing—someone wrote that. I didn’t. I moved on with my life being female-bodied and queer in an industry where 96 percent of the films in general release are made by men. Most of them are straight and white. I’m not saying, “Poor me,” but look at what happened to me as a result of the prominence of that film versus what happened to others who made a first film under 30 that was a hit.
When the Times ran its update story in ’93, you wouldn’t say how much money you made from the movie. Are you yet comfortable saying it?
I don’t know how to define it. I can tell you: certainly not a million dollars. Under that, I don’t know how to quite tell you. I’ve never totaled it up. But a lot of the money that I made went back to music rights, to debts that we had when we made the film, we did give one-fifth of the initial minimum guarantee that Miramax paid to people in the film. [Editor’s Note: The Times reported that $55,000 was distributed to 13 of the film’s subjects “based on how long each appeared on screen.]
What happened then was, a couple of the people like Dorian and Willi [Ninja] were like, “Great, awesome. We never expected anything. We realized we’d signed a release saying we’d be paid nothing.” Other people were like, “Well, we know you’ve made millions, we’re going to get an attorney.” The attorney told them he couldn’t do anything—this was the standard way of documentary. I wonder at that point if people had been like, “How would you feel about making an annual contribution to the community if there are future proceeds?” Which certainly wasn’t known in ’91; I probably would have gone, “Yeah.” But the situation was: “You’re withholding the millions of dollars that you have,” which I didn’t have, and there was no way to move forward.
There have been years where I get a [royalties] check and it’s like, “That really helped me with my health insurance.” Other years, there’s a check like, “That didn’t help me.” But none of those checks was something I could live off in New York City, and the perception is they were.
What is your understanding of the public perception of Paris Is Burning at this point?
I don’t know. I really don’t. I read people who have sort of reflexive criticisms that seem to be based on internet facts and miss a whole lot of other real facts. And other people who just love it, for whom it’s part of their lexicon as queer or trans people. I was on the set of Pose in the summer and I was washing my hands in the bathroom and a woman next to me who was African American said, “Can I talk to you?” She’s a member of the crew and was like, “I just want to tell you, I’m trans and seeing Octavia [St. Laurent] in Paris Is Burning changed my life. It enabled me to go on my journey of transitioning.” I’m like if a million people feel like I’m living in luxury housing with the millions of dollars I’ve collected and it made the rest of my glamorous Hollywood career, and that one woman said, “That movie changed my life,” I would say that balances it out.
What bothers me most about bell hooks’s essay is that she criticizes you for not identifying yourself as a white person when presenting this world that is so fixated on white affluence. She positions this as a moral choice, but you’re a filmmaker—not putting yourself in the movie is just as much an aesthetic choice, if not more.
Well, it is a theoretical question. At the time the film was made, many people were saying in the academy and in the critical stratosphere, that you need to do that. I didn’t go to grad school. If I’d gone to grad school, I probably would have done it, honestly. I probably would have felt the ethical imperative to do it. I made a conventional film, in a way. It’s not about a conventional world, but it is a conventional film. I knew it was possible to put myself in the movie, but I thought I was fucking boring. I thought, “Who wants to see a 24-year-old kid from Yale?” I thought it would have been pretentious. It would have made certain people happy ‘cause I would have been like, “Look! I’m white! I’m doing it from privilege!”
But that story’s not interesting. What’s interesting is that world and those voices. I felt this world completely connected to my understanding of what it is to be an American. That’s what we wanted other people to feel.
You’ve talked about this movie being your surrogate film school. Is there anything you’d do differently now that you didn’t then because you were so green?
I don’t know. People ask me that question a lot. What I would have done is done it at a time when technology allowed me to shoot more. I could only shoot so much and I would have loved to do more vérité and follow people around. Maybe there would have been a way to address my identity that would have been more elegant than anything I could think of at the time.
Some people have said the way the death of Venus is portrayed is too abbreviated. Maybe there would be more about that. It was very far from our intention to be in any way glib or disrespectful, but maybe there would have been a way. We were shocked by her murder. But in a way, we were trying to illustrate that really great things can happen, and the worst you can imagine can happen. Maybe there would have been a way to explore that in a way that was more nuanced.
My interpretation of your handling of that was always that it was blunt and unsentimental to illustrate the lack of value the larger world places on trans lives. People die, society shrugs, and moves on.
Sometimes criticism seems to be saying: “If you aren’t shoving this down my throat, you haven’t considered it.” Subtlety is not the best tool for winning the benefit of the doubt.
Also, the best films say things through context and inference. We could have gone to the cops and said, “Are you investigating that?” and had them say, “No.” But that wasn’t the format of our film, and I think it would have felt weird and taken you out of it. We did it with a shot. We did it with the shot of the sunset in the park. We show Venus lit by sunset in the park. A man lights her cigarette. She’s beautiful, she’s young, she’s enjoying a summer night. That’s cinema. It’s like: Here’s this beautiful person whose life was cut short. I think that’s what cinema does. That’s why the term “documentary,” I don’t like it. We were making a work of art, we were telling a story, we were celebrating a world. I think you fall in love with a character and you mourn the loss of a character because the character has light.
After Miramax bought the movie, did you interact with Harvey Weinstein?
Oh my God, yes. I certainly had no experience in terms of what’s being talked about, nothing like that. But Harvey was a guy who liked to control everything. What I’ve been thinking about this issue is no one talks about the connection between sexual harassment and abuse and culture in which women are taken seriously. You can see the Quentins and the Kevins, those guys, their careers got helped by Miramax. They were seen as serious filmmakers. Women filmmakers like me, filmmakers of color, they just didn’t see us. They didn’t say, “Paris Is Burning did really well for a young [filmmaker], I wonder what that person has next.” Never. I see the connection. If women filmmakers and their visions had been taken seriously, it would have been a harder environment to be doing what he was doing.
We were creating a trailer for the film, which was about to be released. The trailer was a series of moments, a typical trailer, and it was good. The only thing I didn’t like was the moment of Venus, the quote where she goes, “I don’t like to talk about that because it’s my little thing down there.” It was the one moment where she talked about the part of her anatomy she didn’t feel comfortable with, which I think is a good moment in the context of a portrait of a whole person, but definitely not appropriate to be the only line [in a trailer] from someone who was a trans woman. I said, “It’s all good, but you have to take that out. You can replace it, but it’s not respectful.” Not only was it disrespectful to her identity and her body, but she had been murdered. What happened next was, with no explanation or conversation, they completely scrapped that trailer and created one that was the world’s most boring movie trailer ever made. It was a crawl of critics’ quotes over silhouettes of Willi dancing. I can’t tell you for sure why that decision was made, but to me, it felt like retaliation. I had a contract that said I had total control over how the movie was sold in terms of images. I was exerting my rights as the filmmaker, and to me, it felt like, “Fuck you, we’ll make the world’s most boring trailer.” People don’t usually tell you when they’re retaliating.
And then, never saying, “Hey, your film did so well. We’d love to see what you have next.” Never. The personality, the swagger, the disrespect, the misogyny—it fit.
Do you think the profile of Paris Is Burning was disabling to you and your filmmaking? I know you’re working on a movie now, and you directed an episode of Pose, but it’s been nearly 30 years and you’ve yet to release your second feature.
I had plenty of movies that were ready to go: scripts I’d written, documentary ideas. And I wasn’t getting money for years. The thing I’m working on now, I’ve been working on for years. We have an investor who’s been a donor and how just stepped up with a big chunk so I’m about to hire an editor. It’s the kind of movie where unless you have a big chunk, you build it slowly. In terms of wanting to do other things, I observed on the set of Six Feet Under in 2002. I thought maybe those guys would hire me. I don’t know why it takes female-bodied people 15 years to get their first episodic. I’m certainly not the first person who couldn’t get one for a long time.
Back in 2000, A&E hired me to develop a documentary about film fans. And [then] my brother died very suddenly on the heels of losing my mom, my grandmother, my uncle [director Alan J. Pakula]. I was just in a bad way emotionally. I was going to do that job, but they wanted to own all the footage. Being an independent, I didn’t know how mentally to crossover to be in a corporate environment. I think if my brother hadn’t died and I hadn’t been depressed I would have just gone, “Fuck, you have to do your job and just hide the footage you don’t want to share.” But I was so overwhelmed. If I had made that documentary, I think I would have had a lot more work and it was just a terrible decision I now know.
I should have been a white guy who’s straight and then in making films, there would have been so many avenues for me. I had an agent, I went to tons of meetings. I didn’t say, “Give me anything! I’ll do anything!” That’s not me. I had this satire, a lesbian sex comedy. I had so many things that didn’t compute [then] but would compute now because we’re in a totally different era. People would say to me that if you’re a woman—and I don’t identify as a woman, I identify as genderqueer, but that’s certainly how I’m perceived and how I was defined then—but people would say to me: if you have success when you’re a guy, you’re talented, and if you have success and you’re perceived as female, that’s luck. And I do think that was true. Thankfully, there’s more consciousness now.
The Criterion Collection’s special edition of Paris Is Burning is out now.