And the category is...Realness with a Twist.
"I’ve always been impressed by that category," director Romain Cieutat told Red Bull Music Academy. "For the first 30 seconds, each participant must pretend to be a really straight guy, almost a gangster, over hip hop beats, and then the sound changes to a voguing track and they have to act as queer as possible. So I wanted to adapt that to the life of one of my characters, Diga."
Diga (Kendall Mugler) is leading a double life. He claims he's going to football practice—though his mother doesn't seem too convinced—but as soon as he's a safe distance from home, his intentions become queer, er, clear.
Ay, there's the twist. Diga's actually on his way to walk in a ball, where he'll serve the kids in thigh-high stilettos that look—fittingly—"like football boots." If football boots came with a six-inch heel.
In the voguing scene, 80% of the dancers are people of colour, often from immigrant families. I wondered how things went down, in their family and in their neighborhood, because lots of them come from these really rough places like Nanterre, Aubervilliers or Jaures-Stalingrad. How are they perceived and how do they behave when faced with all of that? Are they free to do their thing, are they accepted? So I did some research.
Diga's story is based on a real life dancer who asked Cieutat to "blur his image in the film" because "not many people in his area know he’s gay, none of his family are aware of the fact." Members of the Parisian ballroom community, wary of outsiders, were initially hesitant to let Cieutat film.
Apart from the girls, I’ve never met any straight voguers. It’s a really safe space. When I mentioned the project to Lasseindra [Ninja], she immediately said “How many cameras are you gonna bring with you? We don’t want any white men with cameras...” Because they are black and gay, they deal with a lot of discrimination. I’ve even seen people say horrible shit to them myself. They protect themselves and they’re right to do so.
Aside from its stunning, balletic vogue sequences, Realness with a Twist does what its antecdent, Paris Is Burning, did in offering a glimpse into the urban lives of queer youths of color who find solace and a family of their own creation in the ballroom community. Albeit across the Atlantic.
This really makes me wish that Lee Daniels had gotten his TV adaptation off the ground. Much like Paris Is Burning, Realness with a Twist is told from an outsider (read: ostensibly white and/or straight) perspective—a criticism that has followed the iconic documentary since it first debuted some 25 years ago.
Still, with kids all over the world snatching tens in every language, and artists like FKA Twigs doing a soft dip into stardom, voguing has truly become universal. Let's just not get the realness twisted: it's important to remember where it all started—and who lit the match.
Check out Realness with a Twist below:
And read more of Romain Cieutat's interview here.
Les Fabian Brathwaite—noted haus mother.