Stand up if you believe black lives matter, said Twiggy Pucci Garcon, the cowriter of Kiki, at the documentary’s Thursday screening at the Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival. In unison, the audience at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre rose. It was a moving show of solidarity with the social movement, which has led nationwide protests after police shootings claimed the lives of two men of color last week.
The demonstration was a marker of how much has changed since Paris Is Burning, the filmic predecessor to Kiki; both follow the lives of queer people of color in New York’s drag balls. When Jennie Livingston first trained her lens on this scene 26 years ago, mainstream America had no awareness of this community and its struggles. Today, discrimination is still deadly. But “Black Lives Matter” is a topic that trends daily, forcing even folks who shout “All Lives Matter” to respond to voices from vulnerable communities.
After watching Kiki, The Advocate noted several other key issues that have progressed for queer people of color in this culture since Paris Is Burning. Although sadly, many problems still persist. Here’s a list of both the progress and ongoing prejudices.
Twiggy Pucci Garcon is a leader within the kiki community, which is also known as ball culture. In the course of the documentary, he is hired by the True Colors Fund, where he now serves as a senior program officer. In his new position, Twiggy attended the LGBT Pride reception at the White House to hear remarks by President Obama — a visit that would have been unimaginable for any of the subjects of Paris Is Burning. However, Garcon's triumphant moment is undercut by a call from his landlord, who announces that he has been evicted from his New York apartment. The irony was not lost on Garcon, who after all, had just joined an organization whose mission is to end homelessness among LGBT youth.
The blood relatives of Paris Is Burning’s subjects were largely absent from the 1991 documentary. After all, one of the reasons the different "houses" in ball culture existed was to provide the “logical” families that “biological” families could not. This same point was acknowledged through Kiki — it was clear that its subjects relied on each other for love and support. But it was heartwarming to witness the mothers of several subjects appear in the documentary to profess their support for their queer children. However, not all parents were accepting. The documentary showed, through the story of a trans woman who was kicked out of her home, that the fight against stigma must continue.
AIDS-related illnesses claimed the lives of many of the subjects from Paris Is Burning. Kiki showcases the effort to educate members of the ball community about HIV risk and prevention. If nothing changes, around 60 percent of gay black men will have HIV by age 40, one subject points out, a statistic that was recently cut back to 50 percent, as announced in a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. Another subject, after experiencing viral symptoms, gets tested. Volunteers pass out condoms to the ball participants who gather outdoors to vogue and celebrate their identities. But AIDS still casts its shadow on the community, as shown in a candlelight vigil for a friend lost to the virus.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of nationwide marriage equality during the events shown in the documentary, giving many of the ball participants the right to wed. However, these subjects drove home that marriage is still the least of their concerns. They call it a “gay white man initiative.” Issues such as HIV, homelessness, mental health, and a lack of job opportunities, to name a few, rank far higher on their list of priorities, and they task gay people with more privilege to recognize this.
Out of the Balls, Into the Streets
The ball participants in Kiki did not keep their costumes and dancing behind closed doors. The documentary shows this celebration in the streets — a striking contrast with its predecessor.
Activism vs. Entertainment
In the past, Paris Is Burning and its white director, Jennie Livingston, have been criticized for cultural appropriation; several of its main subjects even threatened to sue upon its 1991 release. Kiki is also helmed by a white filmmaker, Sara Jordeno, who is Swedish. Jordeno, however, had been invited to film the ball scene by Twiggy Pucci Garcon, who serves as a cowriter of the film. Also, the differences between the subject and tone between the two productions are palpable. In Kiki, the angle is less on the ball performances and more on the performers themselves as well as the politics that shapes movements like Black Lives Matter and LGBT rights.
“Gay” is no longer an umbrella term in Kiki, where transgender visibility is front-and-center. The terms “transgender” and “trans experience,” which due to its time were absent from Paris, are used throughout. The film makes efforts to educate viewers of the unique obstacles that members of this community face.
For more information about Kiki, visit KikiMovie.com and watch the trailer below.