image from the Labadie Collection
Comedian Nish Kumar talking about the political nature of comedy, action films, folk music, and board games.
image from tvtime.com
The documentary Paris is Burning is a particularly important record of LGTQ people of color in New York in the 1980s. More specifically, the film is about the ballroom subculture, made up primarily of young, disenfranchised LGTQ POC gathering to “walk” and dance (where “voguing” comes from) in costume. The film has had a lasting impact on current vernacular, such as “shade,” “kiki,” and “realness.”
There was controversy after the documentary around compensation and how the project was represented by Jennie Livingston. The subjects of the documentary lived difficult lives in poverty and the film ended with the murder of Venus Xtravaganza. The resulting question is for documentary film makers as it is for ethnographers – When your career is based in the lives of your subjects, what do you owe them? How might you change their lives by making them famous while they still live in poverty?
The discord around the film reoccured around the 2015 Celebrate Brooklyn screening of Paris is Burning, which was to be accompanied by Jennie Livingston and DJ’ed by JD Samson, both of whom are white queer people. No people of color or representatives from the continuing ballroom scene were invited. Attention was quickly drawn to the silencing of people of color around their own stories and parallels to ongoing gentrification in Brooklyn. A change.org petition declaring “#ParisIsBurnt” was started calling for canceling the event. Ultimately Samson dropped out and ballroom participants who appeared in the documentary were invited to participate.
This year the documentary Kiki was released and has drawn parallels to Paris is Burning, though the director seems to have taken a more collaborative approach and learned from Livingston’s mistakes. It looks at the contemporary ballroom subculture, the importance of DIY, and activism.
Rooted in our ideas of the American dream and meritocracy, we often judge poor people as deserving their fates. We tend to blame the individuals, stigmatizing them as lazy and gluttonous, instead of looking to structural factors. The poor are disproportionately young, female, and African American and Hispanic.
On The Daily Show in 2014, Jon Stewart examined Fox News’s coverage of food stamp recipients. In “What Not to Buy,” “Where Would Jesus Soil,” and “Fox News Welfare Academy” Fox News is critiqued for debating what can and should be covered, as well as who receives food stamps.
More recently on Full Frontal, Samantha Bee similarly examined the expense and subsidizing of diapers.
We have a lot of negative associations with bureaucracies. They can be alienating, impersonal, and dehumanizing for both workers and those being served by the bureaucracy. For being ‘rational,’ they can be quite inefficient, with ‘red tape’ and limited effectiveness when flexibility is needed. Bureaucratic ritualism is when there is such a focus on the rules and regulations to the point of undermining goals and loosing sight of the larger picture. There can also be a problem of a self perpetuating oligarchy, or the rule of many by few, concentrating power and weakening accountability.
All of these problems can be seen in the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. From local individuals and the Canadian government responding faster than the United States, to the neighboring parish (Louisiana has instead of counties) refusing admittance from New Orleans, there was a bureaucratic breakdown in government. When trained people from other areas tried to volunteer to help, FEMA had them hand out pamphlets and fliers.
Though it is worth watching in its entirety (parts I&II, parts III & IV), Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Parts explores the problems between state and federal government bureaucracies from 1:19:02 to 1:42:18.
Last Week Tonight has covered some of the consequences of the criminal justice system for poor people. First, municipal violations, or small infractions typically resulting in fines.
Many are also in prison because they can not afford to post bail. Up to 40% of prisoners at Rikers are there because they can not pay amounts of $5,000 or less.