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Revisiting the Glitzy Safe Havens of NYC's Drag Ball Culture

The new documentary Kiki returns to a community for LGBTQ youths of color first examined in the landmark film Paris Is Burning.

It can be easy for certain kinds of films to feel overly voyeuristic. Any work that offers a peek into a world that’s completely unfamiliar to much of its audience risks keeping viewers at arm’s length, or turning its subjects into a mere curiosity. But the new film Kiki avoids this mistake as it revisits a subject first explored in the landmark 1990 documentary Paris is Burning: the New York underground ballroom scene. Directed by Sara Jordenö and co-written by Twiggy Pucci Garcon, Kiki feels like it’s entirely in the hands of its eponymous heroes, the Kiki community—a newer subset of the original ballroom scene made up of LGBTQ youths of color.

Ballroom culture itself—whose participants compete in organized dance-offs, flamboyantly posing for a cheering crowd while wearing elaborate costumes—has thrived in New York for generations as a space for LGBTQ people of color. As Jordenö tries to illustrate, it’s a minority within a minority, a safe haven for gender expression and stylized femininity that might be rejected or even met with threats of violence elsewhere. And yet, Kiki includes surprisingly little footage of the competitions, or “balls,” themselves. Instead, the documentary concentrates on seven participants, allowing them to narrate their own stories. At a moment when trans rights, which had experienced tentative progress in recent years, are increasingly under threat, Kiki (in select theaters and available on demand on Friday), feels both relevant and hopeful. The film is a beautiful celebration of a subculture that’s still struggling to win the full respect it deserves.

When Paris Is Burning was released 27 years ago, it shed light on a world largely unknown even to art-house film audiences. Jennie Livingston’s documentary looked at what’s now regarded as the “Golden Age” for the ballroom scene, laying out the elaborate rules of these competitive quasi-fashion shows, in which participants “walk” (often posing in exaggerated ways, called “vogueing”) a runway and are judged on their outfits, attitude, and dance skills. Livingston looked at the wide range of competitors, which included gay men, drag queens, and transgender men and women, and dug into what made them distinct while not shying away from the racism and homophobia they faced in their daily lives, along with the ever-present threat of AIDS.

Underground drag balls had existed in New York since at least the 1960s, when organized events were first held in Harlem. But it was a world that eventually leapfrogged into the wider public consciousness, popularized by Madonna and the video for her 1990 single “Vogue,” directed by David Fincher. Pop-culture icons like Beyoncé have expressed their admiration for the movement, saying it helped inspire their onstage presence when performing.

But Kiki is so powerful in part because of how many issues remain nearly three decades after Paris Is Burning. The film reveals that more than half of the members of the New York ballroom scene are HIV positive; many of its subjects talk to Jordenö about the emotional agony of being tested. Beyond that, even though the public’s general awareness of trans rights has grown, the mere act of going outside can be harrowing. Early in the film, the audience watches as one of its stars, Gia Marie Love, gets verbally abused on the streets of Harlem; it’s a distressing moment in which you watch as a familiar panic quickly builds on her face. Had Jordenö confined Kiki’s action to the balls—joyous events filled with eager young people—their value might seem more ephemeral.

But by concentrating on the lives being lived outside of the celebrations, and the personal narratives that led seven very different kids into the scene, Kiki keeps the focus on the value of a safe space, of a community that provides structure and purpose for youths battling homelessness, illness, and prejudice. As a result, Kiki avoids feeling touristic. Rather than inviting viewers to gawk at the incredible spectacle of the balls themselves, Jordenö consistently returns to the stories of those who have been cut off from their families, or forced to suppress their personalities to avoid abuse.

One striking scene in Kiki, which was filmed over three years before its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, sees some of its subjects attend a conference on LGBTQ rights held by the Obama administration, honoring the former president’s vocal support of trans rights. Viewed today, the moment feels as though it took place in a more distant past. Kiki is an undoubtedly inspirational film at times, but it refuses to give its audience an easy pass. It’s an honest examination of the powers, and limits, of subcultures and small communities—and how quickly things can change for better or worse within them.

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

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