Reading “Paris is Burning” with Lucas Hilderbrand

Sharon Needles reading Paris Is Burning

In celebration of his new book, Paris is Burning: A Queer Film Classic, Lucas Hilderbrand answered a few questions about the project for the Reclaim Media issue.

RECAPS:  Your book helps bridge the theory/practice disconnect between drag culture and academic criticism on the topic. Why do you think the academic reception of Paris is Burning became so detached from the materiality of the film? 

LH: I think that it’s important to understand that the initial debates and academic reception of the film happened on-the-ground in some sense: there were really smart debates and responses in the popular press while the film was still at festivals, especially from queer-of-color public intellectuals and scholars. It was also brought into classrooms almost immediately. So there was an immediacy to the academic responses to the film—at least politically—and in some cases also familiarity and contact with the ball scene, too. As we get farther from this initial moment and the stakes of the debates at the time, I think it’s important to try to understand these discussions in context. That was a major agenda that I had for the book: to locate responses in context historically. On the one hand, some of the early academic responses were part of or engaging with broader popular debates. On the other hand, we have seen shifts in the academic discourses on the film in the intervening years, moving away from accusing the film of being problematic toward embracing its rich, enlivening potential and affective power—particularly as reclaimed by queer men of color. But this later writing is probably less widely known. I also want to be clear that I was writing about the film and the discourses it generated. I can’t and wouldn’t claim that my book is more grounded in understanding the ball scene aside from some historicizing gestures to fill in some of what the film—a cinema verite documentary—doesn’t itself explain about ball history. I’m not one of the ball children, even if I am one of the film’s children.

RECAPS: How did encountering the film as a student inform both your emotional experience and intellectual understanding of it? How, if at all, has the experience of teaching Paris is Burning shaped your pedagogy?

LH: I saw the film during the formative period early in high school, and it’s one of a small handful of films that I encountered around that time that really shaped my worldview, including Manhattan, Sex, Lies and Videotape, and The Silence of the Lambs. Like for many queer youth, it’s a film that I found by reading about it and then sought out, so my first attachments to it weren’t actually shaped by pedagogy—at least not in the classroom sense. That said, I felt like I was a student of the film.

In college I became aware of critiques of the film and was resistant to them, probably because I was so close to the text.

As a teacher, I included the film toward the end of the semester of the first class I ever taught as primary instructor; it had been a really rough and draining experience teaching for the first time, and teaching the film was the first session when the class really came alive, and I felt like I could actually make a go of teaching. On the flip side, the first time I ever lost my shit in class was having a bit of a tantrum when a grad student called the film uninteresting! Right now I’m teaching a class on the cultural and media history of the 1990s (syllabus here), and I started with the film because it so effectively documents the culture of the 1980s and sets up the debates of the early 1990s culture wars. 

RECAPS: You mentioned in previous interviews you ultimately edited out some of the discussions of how the text is currently circulating. What do you find particularly interesting about how it exists in more mainstream popular culture?

LH: I’d actually claim that Paris Is Burning was more mainstream at the time of its release than the pop culture texts that cite it today; it crossed over to audiences beyond what we see for RuPaul’s Drag Race does today. They both function as part of the linga franca of queer culture and importantly operate as shared texts for the queer community in ways few texts can achieve. But I don’t think Drag Race actually crosses over much beyond the queer niche—which is fine, I think we need some of our own texts to keep as our own. But part of what is so extraordinary about Paris was the way that it spoke so profoundly to queer audiences but also to other audiences.

RECAPS: How has this book informed your new work about bar culture?

LH: It has postponed it by a couple of years! Actually the bar project may have informed my thinking about Paris more than the other way around. On the one hand, my investment in both is founded in appreciating the significance of nightlife scenes as life-enabling for queers. I don’t consider either bar or balls frivolous by any measure. But in terms of Paris, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere,  some of my travels to different cities for bar research reaffirmed the cultural afterlife of Paris Is Burning and the continued vitality of the ball culture.

RECAPS: What is the legacy of the film for you personally? (ex: Does throwing shade help one navigate academia? How has studying ball culture informed how you experience queer community?) 

LH: Ha! For the past few years I’ve actually been trying to practice being kinder and more supportive (though, let’s be honest, often through “tough love”), rather than shadier as an academic. There’s already too much academic shade, particularly among queers. Like much of my work on popular media histories or bar culture, I have an impulse to create a sense of connection to the queer past and to queer communities through research and writing.

But the timing of the Paris Is Burning book’s publication was personally really complicated, in part because my friend and—though he might not have known it—mentor José Muñoz died just before the official book launch party. José could be bitchy, but he was also so importantly supportive and saw through the cliques and shade and made it possible for so many people to exist as queer academics and to explore subjects that might not have been taken seriously before. Perhaps the key was that, unlike most scholars, he actually liked being social. He did all of this while simultaneously seeming to keep a lightness of spirit yet fighting the good fight institutionally. In José’s book Disidentifications, he actually characterized Paris Is Burning as in need of an “antidote,” so he wasn’t a fan.

But, just as my thinking about the film has been about what it makes possible in the world for queer audiences (and I feel better able to talk about audiences of the film than the subjects in the film), in the wake of the book and José’s death, I’ve been thinking a lot about what he made possible. In both cases, they’ve really made me think about what kind of life I want to make and what kind of academic I want to be and what, if anything, it’s possible to make possible. I’m proud of the book, and it does the work I felt I needed to do. But I also, maybe even more than ever, keep working at questioning and challenging my perspectives.