When the documentary Paris is Burning debuted 25 years ago, it began a cultural impact still relevant today. Following a group of queer ball scene kids in Harlem, ‘Paris’ introduced the world to voguing, the plight of poor LGBT youth, and words such as “shade,” “realness,” and “tea” that still color gay language today.
The Friday, Reel Affirmations presents a special screening of Paris is Burning at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters. The event includes a mini-ball competition as well as a panel on the film moderated by Rayceen Pendarvis of The Ask Rayceen Show. We talked with Pendarvis about the continued impact of the film, and asked him to break it down as to why it continues to electrify everyone – whether they are a mother of a house or a butch queen: first time in drag at a ball.
Brightest Young Things: It has been 25 years since the release of Paris is Burning, yet that film – perhaps more than any other LGBT documentary – continues to electrify people. Why do you think that ‘Paris’ continues to have such a hold on viewers, especially queer ones?
Rayceen Pendarvis: The film continues to electrify because of the people it profiled. Their personalities shine through and their candor allows viewers to see beyond one-dimensional stereotypes.
BYT: Although the film is primarily about Black queer people, white LGBT people often intimately relate to the film. This is a documentary about a scene in Harlem in the early 1990’s. Yet, in talking with people about this film it seems just as likely that a newly-out white farm kid in Nebraska embraces this documentary as their own history as well. What would you attribute that to? Is it the narrative of the film maker, the lives of the individuals portrayed, or something else?
Rayceen: Paris is Burning is relatable to a diverse audience because people everywhere face oppression, discrimination, and isolation. The film shows the determination of people who have not had the opportunity to reach their full potential who create spaces where they are free to express the unlimited possibilities of what and who they can be. It gives people hope. It’s a combination of all the elements that bring the film together and make it accessible and relatable for people of diverse backgrounds.
BYT: People who see Paris is Burning may incorrectly associate the ball scene as something unique to New York City. But, you’re a native Washingtonian and places like D.C. have a heavy history with the ball scene. Did you ever interact with it here and, if so, do you have any memories or history to share?
Rayceen: The ball scene is definitely not exclusive to New York City. It’s now beyond New York and D.C. and other US cities, and is worldwide. I’ve attended and taken part in many balls in D.C. I have many fond memories from over the years. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know people from the scene such as Kevin Aviance (from DC’s own House of Aviance) and Lowell Khan, plus the legendary trio of Monica Allure, Tracey Ebony, and Puffy Ebony, who put the D.C. ball scene on the map.
BYT: One place the ball scene seems to be vibrant today is with teenagers in Baltimore. Have you seen any of the kids there? If so, how do you think they use ball culture as oppose to how its been utilized by older generations?
Rayceen: The Baltimore ball scene is indeed vibrant. They children in Baltimore have a level of creativity and enthusiasm which should be celebrated. The biggest generational difference is the advent of social media. This has changed many aspects of society, including ball culture.
BYT: You recently moderated a panel at the Smithsonian Institution for the 25th Anniversary of Paris is Burning. With that, there is a recognition there that this documentary – and ball culture in general – is a part of American history. What are your thoughts on that queer culture – particularly that Black queer culture – being embraced in that way?
Rayceen: Having the Smithsonian present a screening of Paris Is Burning and then having a panel discussion about the film was certainly a milestone. I hope it will open the door to future projects, including museum exhibits and installations. I think Black queer culture being embraced and celebrated is a wonderful thing. Our stories matter and they need to be told, shared, and preserved for future generations.
BYT: The language of Paris is Burning eventually seeped into larger drag culture, and then – popularized by performers like RuPaul – began to shape the everyday slang and language of our larger LGBT culture. Many young people these days throw around words like “realness” and “butch queen” perhaps without understanding their roots. Regarding this, what would you teach the children?
Rayceen: Know your history: before mainstream America heard RuPaul or anyone on The Real Housewives of Atlanta or Married to Medicine talk about “tea” or “shade” – those terms were commonplace in ball culture generations before. I tell young people that they need to know their history; that’s why ‘Paris’ is required viewing for everyone, but especially LGBT community, and even more so for LGBTQ people of color. Film is an important medium for conveying messages; iconic and informative films such as The Boys in the Band, The Celluloid Closet, Tongues Untied, and Pariah are films that tell our stories.
BYT: You are moderating the panel that goes along with the film. What deeper understanding of ‘Paris’ do you hope to explore with that?
Rayceen: After 25 years, there are many rumors and allegations about the making of the film, the release of it, and everything that followed. For those who feel the film exploited people, we hope to dispel myths giving them the opportunity to hear from individuals who were part of the film and learning about their experiences with the filming process.
BYT: The screening on Friday features a ball and a red carpet, so you know that people will be bringing their best. Any advice on how to stand out?
Rayceen: We look forward to seeing what everyone wears for the red carpet and the mini-ball. The great event photographer Ron Simms Jr. will be there to capture everyone as they strike a pose. One sure way to stand out would be to wear nothing except body paint and glitter so that you can have your moment to shine.
BYT: You’ve called yourself the “Queen of the Shameless Plug”, so tell us a little bit more about The Ask Rayceen Show. What are you hoping to accomplish with this talk show?
Rayceen: I wear the crown of “Queen of the Shameless Plug” proudly! I encourage everyone to plug and promote not just their own events, but those of others as well. It’s important that we support each other; more co-operation and collaboration would benefit everyone in the LGBTQ community. That’s part of what I hope to accomplish at The Ask Rayceen Show by casting a wide net to include artists and activists, performers and politicians, entertainers and entrepreneurs. I aim to uplift, liberate, inspire and foster a sense of community that brings people together regardless of color, ethnicity, religion, age, ability, size, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, educational achievement, or socio-economic status. Our final two shows of 2015 are fast approaching: October 7 is our annual talent competition and November 4 is our Extra Sexy Season Finalé featuring Chocolate City Burlesque and Cabaret. Get you some!
BYT: We’ve had members of Chocolate City perform at past BYT events, including our pride party. They are outstanding. One last thing, you were recently honored by the DC Center at their Fall Reception. Can you tell us what that experience was like?
Rayceen: Being honored at The DC Center’s Fall Reception was a very humbling experience. I know that the work I do would not be possible without the efforts of all those who came before me and laid the foundation. It was truly an honor to be recognized for my work in the community.
Reel Affirmations will present a special screening of Paris Is Burning this Friday evening at the Human Rights Campaign. The event will feature red carpet photos, a screening of the film, a book signing of the companion book Paris is Burning with author Lucas Hildebrand, a mini-ball competition, and a panel discussion moderated by Rayceen Pendarvis.
Reel Affirmations presents Paris is Burning
This Friday, September 25, 2015
Film Screening at 7:00pm
Location: Human Rights Campaign
1640 Rhode Island Avenue, NW
For more information, click here.