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Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary on the gay and transgender ball scene in New York is a really remarkable film. This scene, soon to influence popular culture thanks to Madonna picking up on vogueing, Livingston follows these largely African-American and Latino gay men, not only in the balls but through their lives as well. She interviewed them about their experiences not only as gay men, crossdressers, and transsexuals, but as black gay men, being they faced a whole additional layer of oppression. The balls were the one place they could be fully out and these uplifting, if sometimes contentious, events highlights the variety of gay life in the 1980s. Livingston talks to older gay men who have lived through the scene for 20 years and people recently out of the closet. Most were ostracized by their families, some are homeless, and especially for those hustling, death is around the corner (as in fact happens to one of the young transsexuals she interviews, who is later strangled in a hotel room.

Most of this is filmed in 1986, meaning that AIDS is just hitting in full force. It’s barely a part of the film. A couple of people mention it. But it’s impossible to watch the film and not ask how many of those people were alive 10 years later. Probably quite few. Even the brief return to them in 1989 doesn’t really get into it, even though by this time ACTUP was in full action at that time. But politics don’t seem to be part of the people’s lives. I do know that the choreographer she interviews extensively became big time by 1989 as vogueing was hitting MTV, but he later died of AIDS.

A very worthy piece of filmmaking.