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Gay Ballroom Doc 'KIKI' Shines A Timely Light On Today's Most Pressing Social Issues

'KIKI' chronicles the harsh reliaties of the LGBT ballroom scene, and spotlights the youth who are brave enough to spurr a change. 

By 1991, New York City's queer drag balls were finally exposed. Paris is Burning, a documentary style film took a look inside of what mainstream media had swept under the rug, and what was causing a silent blazing fire of self-expression within the city’s marginalized gay community.

“Drag balls, the product of a poor, gay and mostly nonwhite culture, had been held in Harlem since the 1920's. But it wasn't until Jennie Livingston's award-winning documentary, "Paris Is Burning," was released in 1991 that anyone outside that world knew much about them,” wrote Jesse Green for The New York Times in 1993.

Viewers saw black gay men in heels and extravagant outfits. What appeared to be even more outlandish, however, was all of their larger than life personalities. There’s Pepper LaBeija, the fierce drag queen who many queer kids called mother. There was also Willi Ninja, best known for his influence in the dance world and ball scene.

“I’ve been a man and I’ve been a man who emulated a woman. I’ve never been a woman. I never had that service once a month,” LaBeija affirmed during a clip of Paris is Burning. “I’ve never been pregnant. I can never say how a woman feels. I can only say how a man that acts or dresses like a woman feels.”

Not only did the film unleash the inner city ballroom culture, it also placed a magnifying glass on the social-economical issues that engulfed those who were a part of it. It showcased the different ballroom houses that populated the community, which served as safe havens for those who no longer had a biological family but were adopted by a gay one. These houses or families were like gay street gangs all fighting for acceptance and freedom. Instead of guns and knifes, lipstick and high heels were their weapons of choice.

With time, the world began to catch up. Madonna hand picked two young Latino dancers from the House of Extravaganza, and took them on her Blond Ambition Tour in 1990. (One of the dancers, Jose Gutierez, originally appeared on Paris Is Burning.)

Now, twenty-five years later, Swedish filmmaker Sara Jordenö’s KIKI attempts and succeeds at showcasing the present day ballroom culture known as the "KIKI scene." The personalities, costumes, attitudes, strengths, struggles and vulnerabilities are all there. Jordenö partnered up with one of the documentary's subjects, Twiggy Pucci Garcon, (né Ryan White) a member of the ballroom scene and a Senior Program Officer at True Colors Fund, a non-profit that serves LGBT homeless youth, to write the film.

More importantly, the film touches on the advocacy work that many of these LGBT youth of color within the ball room scene are involved with to help make a difference. Through interviews and revealing scenes of raw conversations, the film excels at depicting the many issues that encircle this community. For Jordenö, it was imperative to get the story as accurate as possible, by representing this community in an authentic way.

"We were really attempting to make an honest project," Jordenö says over the phone, adding on that recognizing her privilege as a white woman was imperative in helping her tell this story. "I think that every person with white privilege has some work to do. A constant work that will never end to figure out their place in the world, and know what that privilege is. It’s a work that never ends."

"I always had white privilege and I grew up in Sweden, so I was never at risk," she continues. "Even though my life wasn’t always easy growing up. Of course, it can’t be compared the struggles I had to the struggles the youth in the KIKI scene have."

Those struggles include HIV, homelessness and substance abuse, among many others. For fellow cast member, Francisco Gonzalez Jr., better known as  "Mother Chi Chi Unbothered Mizrahi," his transparency about substance abuse in the film was helpful for many. "It’s all about what one watches and what one grasps from it," he told Remezcla last year. "For me, most of the time, when I talk about my issues with overcoming substance abuse, that’s what people connect to with me. I have people come up to me who are fighting their own demons. A lot of them tell me, “Wow, watching this movie really makes me feel like I’m not alone and that people care."

In efforts to highlight the many topical issues KIKI shines a light on, we've compiled a timely list of seven social issues the documentary educates the masses about. Peep the rundown:

1. Identity, Religion And Discrimination
For most people who identify as LGBT, navigating the rocky road of self-acceptance is a steep one. It’s even harder if bias religious views are involved. KIKI touches upon the subject when you see Twiggy trek back home to Virginia from NYC. There, he explains what he dealt with the church and the small-minded town he comes from. Like him, Jordenö also relates to this, as she is a queer woman who grew up in a very religious home.

2. The Police Force Against LGBT Youth 
The Christopher Street pier is one of New York City’s enclaves for LGBT youth of color— especially for those who are homeless and/or are part of the ballroom scene. Through various testimonies from the film’s different subjects, you’ll see the injustices that the NYPD serves these young people. One of the film’s main characters, Divo Pink Lady, a 25 year-old black gay man from Brooklyn, says he’s been arrested three times around the area. In the film, he admits it was a humiliating experience. He says he feels the discrimination stems from the pre-conceived notions the police have of the ballroom community.

3. HIV
Through a heart wrenching confessional style scene from Kenneth “Symba McQueen” Soler Rios, a young Latino gay man who confesses he is HIV positive—vividly remembers when hearing the news, the only thing he could think of was becoming another statistic. The Center For Disease Control and Prevention reports that Latino and African-American gay men, ages 13-24 are infected with HIV at higher rates than their white counterparts (at a 38% rate for black men in 2015) These are staggering numbers, but the more visibility the issue gets, the closer a solution is on the horizon.

4. Street Harassment And Discrimination
LGBT people are subjected to vast amounts of street harassment for simply being themselves. When Gia Marie Love, a black transgender woman and Christopher Waldorf, a young Latino gay man are captured walking through the streets of Harlem, a group of little kids start yelling anti-LGBT slurs. As the tensions rise, viewers see Gia getting flustered. While these were most likely harmless kids, the engrained homophobia and trans-phobia instilled in them at such a young age is dangerous. Nonetheless, but just as important to showcase considering how at-risk the trans population is. In 2016, 26 trans people were reportedly killed—making half of them African-American trans women. Additionally, a report by Save Dade, an LGBT advocacy organization, states that 53% of transgender people experience street harassment and disrespect in public. 

5. LGBT Youth Homelessness 
LGBT homeless youth is one of the community’s biggest problems. Essentially, it’s the entry way for the spread of other unfortunate things like, HIV infection, poverty and drug use. Through Izana “Zaryia Mizrahi” Vidal, a 20 year-old transgender woman from Harlem you’ll see the intricacies that come with being transgender and living on the street. The film chronicles her transition from the inception to its final stages. Through the process, she is forced to live on the street because of her family’s disapproval. In various clips, she talks about this and the hardships she’s endured; like having to resort to sex work for survival.

6. Sex Work And Gender Identity 
Over a discussion group about sex work, Gia Marie Love and another member explore the topic of transgender women participating in the trade. The participant, a young black gay man, says that during his time as an escort, he noticed transgender women making more money than he did. He also mentioned how many young men even go through transitioning in efforts to make more money. While this may be true, he admitted to not counting that as a real transition because of the reasons behind it. Still, Gia affirms it does not matter where an individual started for their identity as a transgender person to be validated—no matter how your gender expression in viewed.

“To people if you’re a certain type of trans-woman they place a little bit more value on your identity,” she explains over the phone. “Or if your story matches this mold or this representation of what is trans or if you look a certain way. My argument is that we need to stop placing values on people’s identity based off their narratives or how they look. At the end of the day that person is trans woman if that is how they identify, and we need to respect that.”

7. Gay Identity And Machismo
For most gay men who are black or Latino, the hyper-masculinity they are subjected to by their peers is intense. And often times, the young-gay men of color experience isn’t something that is as talked about in main stream media. Through out the doc you’ll see Christopher Waldorf’s own issues with his family, and trying to be himself. As he was growing up in a Latino household in Harlem, he had to often suppress his feelings in fear of what his family would do. It's an all too common story, yet refreshing to see an image of oneself on screen. More of these are needed.





































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Zendaya And John David Washington Quietly Filmed A Movie In Quarantine

Zendaya and John David Washington shot an entire movie while in quarantine. According to Deadline, Malcolm & Marie was filmed over the course of two weeks at the Caterpillar House, an environmentally friendly estate located in California's Monterey County.

The idea reportedly came about after production on the HBO series got shut down due to the global pandemic. Zendaya reached out to Euphoria creator, Sam Levison, who cranked out the script for Malcolm & Marie within a week. Zendaya, Washington, Sam Levison and his wife and business partner, Queen & Slim producer, Ashley Levison, helped bankroll the film’s pre-production and production costs.

In addition to starring in Malcolm & Marie, Zendaya and Washington executive produced the project, alongside Aaron L. Gilbert, Will Greenfield, and Kid Cudi, the latter of whom also invested money in the film.

Although the film plot remains under wraps, Malcolm & Marie is said to be similar to Netflix’s Marriage Story, about a couple getting a divorce.

To make sure that production followed proper safety guidelines, Ashley Levinson consulted with doctors, lawyers, the Writer’s Guild of America, the Director’s Guild of America, and the Screen Actors Guild. The film's cast and crew stayed at a quarantine location and were shuttled to set every day. The crew was not allowed to be near the actors, and no more than a dozen people from each department were allowed on set at one time.

Malcolm & Marie could change the way movies are shot in post-pandemic Hollywood. Filming reportedly went down between  June 17 and July 2.

The production also took on-set health precautions including wearing masks, twice-daily temperature checks, and physical distancing.


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(L-R) Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler and Jasmin Cephas Jones as Peggy Schuyler in the filmed musical, ‘Hamilton.’
Courtesy of Disney

Watch: Lin-Manuel Miranda & The ‘Hamilton’ Cast Speak On The Musical’s Significance In Today’s Fight For Social Justice

Independence Day is about to hit different. As America takes part in another 3-day holiday weekend filled with socially distanced cookouts and quarantined binge-watching sessions, family and friends can finally see Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking musical, on the small screen. Alas, that subtle, 5-year feeling of envy felt by those of us who missed the opportunity to see the original cast at a sold-out showing can finally be let go. Thanks to streaming platform Disney Plus, musical theatre enthusiasts and followers of the Broadway production will now be able to relive the cultural phenomenon that debuted on January 20, 2015, after it went on to win nearly a dozen Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize of Drama, and a Grammy.

With the ongoing protests around the murderous killing of George Floyd, the unwavering #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the exposing spotlight on the systemic racism that has plagued America for centuries, Hamilton's film premiere couldn't arrive at a better time. There's a melting pot of actors, rappers, and singers of color telling the stories of figures in American history through the lens of hip-hop, R&B, and popular music. But what brings all of this full circle is the irony of how monuments dedicated to many of America's forefathers (and slave owners) are now being torn down in protest.

"Listen, I didn't care about these people either. I was not a history fan prior to reading Hamilton's book," shared Miranda—the filmed musical's protagonist Alexander Hamilton and producer behind its book, music, and lyrics—in an interview with VIBE during an on-camera interview. "All I knew about him was he was the white guy on the 10 and he died in a duel. And then I picked up this history book and my way in was that he grew up in the Caribbean and he came from somewhere else. And so, that was my way into the story. And I think that if you tell it that way, you see it through a kind of different lens. It's not an accident that we have Black and brown bodies playing these founders."

"And clearly, in this moment where we exist, it feels like if this show can give energy and momentum to the movement, then the show is serving the moment. And that's all that we can do..." adds Hamilton's director and producer, Thomas Kail. "Our hope is," he continues, "by putting it on Disney Plus where tens of millions of people can see it in one day, that maybe we're doing some kind of service towards that and just trying to participate and contribute."

Ahead of the Broadway play's cinematic debut, VIBE correspondent Jazzie Belle not only sat Miranda and Kali, but also members of the illustrious cast: Daveed Diggs (who plays Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler), Christopher Jackson (George Washington), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds), and Leslie Odom, Jr. (Aaron Burr). They talked hip-hop, today's climate around civil rights, and who they'd create a musical around if given the opportunity.

Lin-Manuel Miranda  and Thomas Kail

On the decision to have the musical's characters inspired by hip-hop/R&B artists of past and present:

Miranda: My goal with it was I wanted to have as big a tent in terms of the casting as possible. I wanted people who had never auditioned for a musical to audition. I wanted musical folks who loved hip hop but had never been able to bring that, to come in. So, every character description was a half a musical theatre reference and half a hip hop reference. I think George Washington was a Mufasa meets ...

Kail: John Legend.

Miranda: Oh, John legend. Yeah. And Angelica's character was Desiree Armfeldt, who's the smartest character in Little Light Music meets Nicki Minaj because she's just got the fastest raps in the show and the hardest raps in the show. And it was the intelligence. That's the secret about Angelica. She's smarter than Alexander, she's smarter than Jefferson, but because she is a woman in this time, she only gets to exercise it in a few ways. And so, that was the thinking behind each of the characters. I'm trying to think of some of the other ones. King George was like Rufus Wainwright meets King Herod from Jesus Christ Superstar. I can't remember, but the fun of it was this mashup of a musical theatre character and a hip hop artist. And in contradiction, figuring out what actors would do with that.

It's Mobb Deep, it's [Big] Pun, it's Biggie, it's very East Coast '90s. There's even a little sneaky Brand Nubian in there. It's just sort of—

Kail: Wait, and Hercules Mulligan was Busta Rhymes. So, when Busta Rhymes raps or Hercules Mulligan raps in the mixtape, it was beyond anything you could comprehend.

Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Leslie Odom, Jr.

On the "Dear White American Theater" open letter and the tough conversations around systemic racism within the musical theatre industry:

Odom, Jr.: There are two important talks that are happening. There's the talk that we're having with our white brothers and sisters, our white colleagues and peers, and then there's the talk that we're having amongst each other that sometimes we have never spoken about, about trauma. What everybody's asking themselves right now, what I think the most important questions are...white supremacy is upheld by systems. And so, it's like am I actively upholding the system? Do I have hiring power? Am I actively upholding the system, or am I being used to actively uphold this system?

And that's what that letter is about. It was crafted to this industry that we love so much, and we're saying to them, "Are you being used?" It's going to take work to dismantle this thing. I'll say this. Don't wait. If you love and care for Black people, don't wait for us to get murdered by the police to care about our Black lives. Don't wait for me to get murdered by the cops. Care about my Black life right now. That's what we talking about.

On the women rappers/singers they pulled inspiration from when preparing for their roles:

Goldsberry: I actually studied female rappers my whole life...It's one of those things you never know, when you're kind of feeding your soul with things, what you're preparing yourself for. We [Jasmine and I] almost had the opportunity to do a big tribute to Salt-N-Pepa. We were going to do "Shoop."

What we love... It also mirrors Hamilton. This is a show about a group of men fighting for something, and what our hip-hop queens represent is, in this seemingly very male world, the power of women. They're standing there saying, "I'm here, and I own this, too." They [Salt N Pepa, MC Lyte, etc] were my model way before anybody asked me to play Angelica Schuyler.

Jones: For me, I didn't rap that much at all in this, but what I loved about my number in "Say No to This," it was a huge ode to an R&B ballad. The fact that even Jill Scott sang "Say No to This" on the mixtape was like...I've seen Jill Scott like five times. You know what I mean? I love Jill Scott so much, so it's just full circle for me, even the fact that she was able to do that on the mixtape. And that's who also influenced me as an R&B singer.

On the significance of seeing Hamilton today as Black and brown people fighting for racial equality in America:

Jones: It's about inspiring, and it's about seeing diversity on stage. It's about going out, getting people to vote to make a change. If you can't feel like you can't do it yourself, then go out and reach out to your friends and come together. There are layers to this show. And as Leslie said, it's the beginning of a conversation. Have it open the conversation, and let's continue to talk about it.

Odom, Jr: The premiere on Disney Plus, we hope—in the same way that I felt before the show opened off-Broadway—was the beginning of a conversation. It's the beginning of critique. There can be an honest critique of the work. There's a lot of love and hard work that went into it, but it can be looked at with new eyes and picked apart if somebody wanted to. Again, I hope it's the beginning of a conversation. I leave it to other people to sell stuff, but I think that the show is about them, but it is also so clearly about us, and you feel that when you watch it. It's about Thomas Jefferson, but it's about Daveed. It's about Alexander Hamilton, but it's about Lin, and so that's worthy of your time.

Goldsberry: This is a show about this ragtag group of people that were the voices of a revolution, and they won. We won, we won, we won, we won, right? We are in a revolution right now, and we need to win it. The risk that these people took is an example and actually reflects the risks that people are taking right now. Not to mention, don't get it twisted. This is not a country that was made by others. This was a country that was made by our people, too. And seeing people that look like you play it is the first step in acknowledging that. I think that's really hugely important.

Don't write off your history because of the pictures that they put up and showed you to tell... It's the same thing like, how do you deal with your spirituality? Because of the picture somebody showed you of Jesus? No, you claim that. You claim that, and you should claim this country. You should claim that, too. We would hope that the work that's been done in the show breaks down some of those barriers and that people look with new eyes.

Daveed Diggs and Christopher Jackson

On how he wasn't initially sold on the idea of Hamilton:

Diggs: It was Tommy [Kali] who told me what Lin was cooking up, and I told him it was a terrible idea. I stand by that, by the way. (Smizes) It was a terrible idea...The second that he sent me the sort of demos, which are not great. They're nothing like what we have now, but it was so clear that it was going to be amazing. The fact that it is a terrible idea has nothing to do with it being a great show. And as soon as he sent me the music, I was like, "This is a great show and I really, really want to be a part of it." It's still a bad idea. If you pitched me that idea today, I would tell you it's a bad idea.

On how his love for hip-hop began in his entertainment career:

Jackson: I grew up in Southern Illinois, right? My family, we didn't have cable and we didn't have what would be known as urban radio. We didn't have Black radio back there. Any of my friends, anytime they would go visit family in Chicago or St. Louis, we would all rush over to their house with blank tapes so that they could then record the mix shows on a loop and bring back whatever we could get. I remember running through the house singing Run DMC and "Roxanne, Roxanne" just had my mind. I had no idea what this was, but I was like, "Ahhh." I used to get in trouble for rapping at the dinner table because back then, you didn't sing or do anything at the dinner table. But I'm 44 years old. Hip-hop has been a presence in my entire life. Just as pop music has and just as Michael Jackson and any country artist because I'm from the South. It's just the amalgamation of all of these different musical things, which is why Lin and I get down so well because he's constantly mining for that kind of stuff in his work. I found that I have a little reservoir that I always get to pull from when we do stuff together.

On how Hamilton should be interpreted in light of America's forefathers' monuments being torn down today:

Diggs: I think we have to accept the fact that there are sides of the people that we have considered heroes for a long time that don't deserve to have monuments about them, that those monuments don't serve us. I don't think that is a reason to not learn about them. I think it's actually an argument to learn about them in their totality and struggle with the idea of what is useful about the things that a dude like Thomas Jefferson came up with or penned what is instructive about them. And what about him do we disagree with? He was a human being. You know what I'm saying? I think the same argument is true of watching the show.

Jackson: Hamilton shouldn't be confused with hero-worship. It shouldn't be confused with the type of veneration that historically, we viewed a history through that lens and that's not what we're doing. I think that one of the many statements that are made happen to be about the fact that we're bringing these men and women down off of pedestals, we're looking at them in their most trifling states. The founding of this country was always aspirational and was always meant to not live up to it because the men that were actually in charge at that point were not capable of being their greatest selves in regard to the way that we view this now. But slaves back then, sure enough, didn't see any greatness in them.

Interview's music bed provided by Gus.

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Mahershala Ali To Play Boxing Legend Jack Johnson In HBO Series

Mahershala Ali’s will be gearing up for his dream role. The Oscar-winner is set to portray boxer, Jack Johnson, in an upcoming limited series on HBO.

According to Deadline, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman are behind the six-part series titled, Unruly. The film is based off the book and PBS documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.

Unruly is described as an “unapologetically Black, no-holds bar” depiction of Johnson’s rise and fall. Ali previously portrayed Johnson in the 2000 boxing film, The Great White Hype.

Nicknamed the “Galveston Giant," Johnson became the first Black boxer to win the world heavyweight title, paving the way for the likes of Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, and more.

In 1913, he was convicted of violating the Man Act for allegedly picking up prostitutes. Despite the fact that Johnson's committed the offense before the Act went into effect, he was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to a year in prison but he skipped bail and fled to Canada with his girlfriend, Lucille Cameron. Johnson remained in exile in Canada and later in Europe, Mexico and South America before returning to the U.S. in 1920 and serving out his one-year sentence.  He died in a car accident in 1946.

Johnson received a posthumous presidential pardon in 2019.

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