It takes balls to come out as gay or transgender in New York City today, especially for teens of color — which is exactly what the so-called “Kiki” scene sprung up to provide. A quarter century after “Paris Is Burning,” the fire still rages with LGBTQ youth, as seen in Sara Jordeno’s brash and empowering feature debut, which celebrates how the Big Apple’s ballroom scene — that vibrant subculture of competitive dance-offs from which “vogueing” was born — has inspired a new generation. Encouragingly enough, these obstreperous African-American teens are carrying the torch for more than just wild drag performances (if anything, the documentary is disappointingly light on actual ball footage); they have also advanced the fight for visibility, equality and all-around inclusion. In a context where “face” matters, “Kiki” introduces a number that audiences won’t soon forget.
Faced with daunting HIV infection statistics that suggest as many as three in five could wind up positive, a handful of politically engaged New Yorkers — including “Kiki” co-writer (and small-town Virginia transplant) Twiggy Pucci Garcon — have found a lively way of engaging with gay and trans adolescents at risk of homelessness, abuse and depression. Basically, by taking a page from the Harlem-based ball culture, they have created a “safe haven” splinter movement centered around the West Village’s Christopher Street Pier (causing all sorts of problems for the older and thoroughly gentrified Stonewall neighborhood, un-addressed here).
Here, flamboyant teens meet and hang out with others like themselves, dividing up into teams (ersatz families known as “houses”) and creatively transforming themselves at Kiki balls — the kid sister to their notorious uptown dance-offs, where a fierce competitive spirit could easily destroy younger performers’ already fragile self-esteem. The word “kiki” itself is gay-slang for a fabulous get-together or party, and though dancers (their moves considerably more spastic than the choreography co-opted by Madonna back in the day) still vie for cash prizes, a typical Kiki ball emphasizes fun and acceptance, interwoven with safe-sex messaging and free STD testing.
With the blessing of house doyens Twiggy and Chi Chi Mizrahi, Jordeno gained intimate access to this world for the better part of three years, observing everything from behind-the-scenes ballroom rehearsals to an ambitious White House visit, where Obama says of LGBT rights, “This is an issue whose time has come.”
And so it has — though “Kiki” makes it clear that marriage equality was “a gay white man initiative,” while the concerns facing trans teens of color remain largely unheard. So, where “Paris Is Burning” was all about “realness” (celebrating the ability to blend, whether that meant passing as a real woman or a non-gay man), “Kiki” emphasizes awareness: These youngsters aren’t masking their gender-blurring identities, as previous generations were obliged to do, but exuberantly asserting their presence — They’re here! They’re queer! Get used to it! — and not just at balls, but in public.
Despite the temptation to celebrate their ballroom alter egos, Jordeno is determined to capture her subjects’ real-world personalities — out of costume, on the streets, appearing as whichever gender they most identify with (or, in Gia Marie Love’s case, before and after her transition). While this approach provides an incomplete picture of the Kiki scene itself, it delves into intimate revelations about homophobia, drug addiction and prostitution. And for any who doubt the urgency, the film even includes a candlelight vigil for a friend lost to HIV. In one particularly candid scene, Symba McQueen (a fixture within the Kiki community, as the events’ boisterous emcee) reveals the story of his own status.
While such testimonials sound distressingly similar to those heard 25 years earlier, the fact that HIV infection rates are on the rise (especially among people of color) and that intolerance remains (inner-city kids lob insults from the sidelines) justifies “Kiki’s” occasionally didactic tone. After all, the film — which, like last year’s “Tangerine,” was developed in collaboration with its subjects, upholding the “Not About Us Without Us” philosophy — wasn’t intended merely to amuse open-minded festival and arthouse audiences, but also to reach lost/closeted adolescents seeking acceptance and encouragement in more conservative corners of the world.
In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement, the film reinforces that credo, privileging each of its young hero(in)es with a striking shot in which they stand, alone or in pairs, staring directly into the camera — and defiantly out at the world. Among her subjects, there are those who seek “gender confirmation” (to use the politically correct term recently featured during the Oscar telecast to describe “The Danish Girl’s” pioneering operation), and others, like Chi Chi, who cross-dress strictly “for the entertainment value.”
Regrettably, “Kiki” seems far less interested in entertainment than activism. On paper, Jordeno’s art-world background might make this project sound like the next “Rize” — in which fashion photog David LaChapelle intercut a profound South Central sociological portrait with stunning krump-style dance footage — but apart from a few staged routines (on a subway platform, in front of a barber shop), “Kiki” proves relatively unexceptional looking, lensed and edited to look like standard reality TV fare. Even so, it explodes with energy, thanks in part to rattlesnake-taut dance tracks from MikeQ and ballroom DJ crew Qween Beat, but mostly from the Kiki kids themselves.