25 years after Paris Is Burning documented Harlem’s Ball Scene dominated by queer people of color, three documentaries follow in its footsteps. The first was Strike A Pose, the documentary that followed up on the lives of Madonna’s Blonde Ambition Dancers, where two of the featured dancers are members of the House of Xtravaganza. The third is the upcoming Check It, about a queer gang in Washington D.C. that developed its own subculture in response to the various pressures the queer community faced there. Check It is currently touring the film festival circuit.
Kiki is a direct follow-up on the Harlem Ball Scene, building upon the knowledge of Paris Is Burning and showing how the ball culture has developed into community outreach projects. Directed by Sara Jordeno and co-written by Twiggy Pucci Garcon, a leader in the kiki community, Kiki takes a more narrow approach by showcasing how the scene helps the community in larger contexts.
Let’s drop back.
Paris is Burning was directed by Jennie Livingston, an outsider to the ball scene. Livingston’s goals of Paris was to introduce the ball culture, define or submerge the audience in the culture, get to know many of the characters within the culture, and see how that culture existed in the context of the larger world. That last bit was key, as the ball culture of Paris Is Burning is fixated on the consumer culture being sold throughout the 1980s, either by embracing, emulating, or satirizing it.
The world has changed and fractured in the past 25 years. The Kiki scene is a subset of the larger ball scene as shown in Paris is Burning. While that scene still exists, the Kiki scene is a youth-led section of ball culture that focuses on social outreach. This change in focus is reflected in the change of the balls. Where the Paris scene had categories emulating masculine and feminine stereotypes, the Kiki balls tend to focus more on being their real self. Where the ball cultures of Paris Is Burning had categories that emulated high profile stereotypes of the 1980s, the ball culture of Kiki elevates individuality with categories that bend and twist based on people’s personalities. The one key is to be your best self.
Not only has the foci changed from mass culture, but progress is being made for the closest circles as well. Back in Paris is Burning, parents were completely absent. One of the best scenes are these two underage gay boys hanging out at like 4am saying their moms probably don’t know where they are. So many of the kids of Paris weren’t as lucky, as many of them were kicked out and disowned for their homosexuality or transgender identity. Here, Twiggy takes us on a road trip to meet his mom and larger family, and the difference of acceptance in a mere 25 years is palpable.
I’m not saying that everything is rainbows and unicorns. Most of these youth are still at-risk. Many are still being ejected from their home, and some have been disowned. There’s still rampant poverty, with kids selling their bodies for money or food. 50% of the community tests positive for HIV. But, the Kiki community is based on infrastructure designed to educate, empower, and aid the community. For instance, Twiggy Pucci Garcon is a Community Health Specialist at FACES New York, where they do drug testing, sex ed, substance abuse…all the various things to help. The houses still exist to help with homeless youth. The same fucking problems still fucking persist after 25 years, but Kiki shows that people doing the work to improve lives for the better.
The stories within Kiki are vital, important, and essential to what is going on today. It’s frequently an electrifying movie full of energy and fabulousness. However, it’s impossible to escape the shadow of Paris Is Burning. The irony of Kiki is that it focuses on a smaller subset of the Harlem ball culture than Paris Is Burning, but Jordeno and Garcon have so much more infrastructure to focus on. There are balls (of course, clinics and houses and classes and meetings and characters and promotion, and its a much more detailed behind the scenes type of movie. But, Jordeno’s structure flips through these with a devil-may-care pattern. Maybe additional viewings will make more sense out of it, but the first viewing just isn’t nearly as tight or as purposeful as it needed to be.
Did I say additional viewings? That criticism of editing is minor, because Kiki is a genuinely fun movie to delve around. Because of Garcon, Jordeno gets seemingly full access to the community and Kiki is a thorough entertaining update to a community that is still fighting and surviving.
Kiki is currently on a mini rollout tour in a handful of cities. Their website has the rollout schedule.