#parisisburnt: how an iconic documentary kicked up a huge controversy

A petition to cancel a screening of 'Paris Is Burning' has sparked a fierce debate over cultural appropriation, the visibility of the trans/queer community and JD Samson.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
12 May 2015, 9:45pm

"This is an erasure of our communities which this documentary purports to be representing," reads a change.org petition directed at Brooklyn arts non-profit BRIC Arts Media, filmmaker Jennie Livingston and legendary ex-Le Tigre member JD Samson.

Paris Is Burning, the iconic documentary that shone a light on New York's glitter-filled drag ball scene — and brought the words "fierce," "shade" and "werk" into the mainstream — is scheduled to screen on June 26 at a free event in Brooklyn organized by BRIC. It's part of the organization's summer-long "Celebrate Brooklyn!" series. But a wave of online anger is calling to #SHUTITDOWN.

While BRIC's website describes the event as a special 24th anniversary screening of a film that "illuminated a world of sustenance and joy that one group of New Yorkers created in the face of racism, poverty, and homophobia," a storm of comments on the event's Facebook page has spun into a petition to cancel the event.

The main complaint of the #parisisburnt protesters? BRIC announced that the screening's opening act would be JD Samson, an artist that commenters say is not part of the community the film portrays. "Did it once occur to you to contact the ballroom houses currently active in NYC to perform instead of JD Samson?" wrote Facebook user Julieta Regina.

And the change.com petition, organized by "Paris Burnt," notes that although New York's ball scene is mostly made up of people of color and from the trans/queer community, the event lineup includes "NOT ONE PERSON from the documentary or the present THRIVING ballroom community and NO PERFORMERS OF COLOR."

A wider complaint, also laid down in the terms of the petition, stems from pre-existing concerns that the documentary exploited the Harlem ballroom community by not compensating its subjects. The petition demands that the film's award-winning director, Jennie Livingston, "pay retribution to the survivors and communities of the people [she] exploited in Paris is Burning with all future proceeds."

On Sunday, Livingston responded to the criticism by posting a long message on the event's Facebook page. She said she had initially suggested, in passing, that LE1F perform as an opening act at the screening. But she left the programing to BRIC. "It is not an event I am putting on so it is not my event to cancel," she wrote. "But if you like the idea of BRIC changing the program to put community performers front and center please reach out and continue the conversation with BRIC." She continued, "I've been dialoguing about this film for 24 years and am open to critique and conversation."

When i-D asked BRIC about the current status of the event, the organization's president, Leslie Schultz, responded:

"BRIC has been listening to and learning from the online discussion about our programming of Paris Is Burning and the line-up we initially planned. BRIC is reaching out to local QTPOC organizations and individuals to help us consider programming changes. We will be announcing these changes to the line-up when they are finalized."


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Still from Paris Is Burning

New York
JD Samson
Le Tigre
Cultural Appropriation
Paris Is Burning
Jennie Livingston
think piece