There's no medium like documentary film for bringing little-known subcultures out of the shadows and into the light of an unsuspecting world. More than 25 years ago, Jennie Livingston's landmark Paris Is Burning fulfilled that promise with a poignant portrait of New York City's ball culture, in which gay and transgender people of color stage elaborate competitions featuring their own style of dance-and-modeling performance. Soon after the release of that film, the style was further popularized (or appropriated, depending on your point of view) by Madonna with her smash hit "Vogue."
Though not an official sequel, director Sara Jordeno's Kiki returns to the still-thriving ball community of New York City. The kiki scene is a subset of the ball scene, and one inhabited by kids as young as 12 up to adults in their early 20s. Like the mostly older denizens of the ball scene depicted in Paris Is Burning, kiki participants affiliate themselves with "houses" that provide mentorship, team training for the competitions and a support network intended to mitigate the racism and homophobia they live with daily — even in a city as relatively open-minded and tolerant as New York.
Those stakes are raised higher by the age of the kids in Kiki. The kiki houses — with names like House of Pink Lady and House of Unbothered Cartier — are run by "mothers" and "fathers" who lead substitute families of teens severely at risk for homelessness, violence, disease and death. In many cases, these kids have been disowned by their birth parents and put out on the street to fend for themselves. Where Paris Is Burning revels in the joy and exuberance of runway walks and stylized dance, Kiki focuses on the intimate stories of several troubled-but-resilient teens.
Jordeno was invited to make the film by two house mothers, including the unforgettably named Twiggy Pucci Garcon — founder of the Opulent Haus of Pucci — who became Jordeno's collaborator and co-writer of Kiki. That collaboration ensured not only unprecedented access to the scene but also a certain authenticity that proves vital to the film's success. Kiki never appears exploitive of its subjects in any way — a charge that bedevils Paris Is Burning to this day.
Kiki necessarily makes use of some of the same locations as the earlier film. The Christopher Street Pier in the West Village has remained a gathering place for gay and transgender youth for more than 30 years. But the world has changed dramatically around them. For starters, the pop, soul and house music of the 1980s ball scene has been usurped by the clangy, punchy sounds of the Qween Beat producer collective, which provides music for the kiki scene and for a film soundtrack that mixes classic kiki beats with fresh material.
More importantly, Kiki makes clear that for all the social gains made by the LGBTQ community in recent years, the challenges faced by young people of color in that community haven't changed much at all. Many will be surprised to hear a black transgender teen discount gay marriage as something demanded and received by well-heeled "gay white men ... in Chelsea." In a strange era where transgender youth routinely are defined by their access to public bathrooms, progress surely remains in the eye of the beholder.