Paris is Burning (1990)

Thirty years ago today, the documentary film Paris is Burning premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. This movie and Grey Gardens are the two most important documentaries I saw in my yearly 20s. You have to see this movie.

Title: Paris is Burning
Directed by: Jennie Livingston
Produced by: Jennie Livingston
Starring: Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Venus Xtravaganza, Octavia St. Laurent, Willi Ninja, Angie Xtravaganza, Freddie Pendavis, Junior Labeija
Cinematography: Paul Gibson
Edited by: Jonathan Oppenheim
Production Company: Academy Entertainment, Off White Productions
Distributed by: Off-White Productions
Release date: September 13, 1990 (Toronto), December 4, 1990 (Princeton), January 1991 (Sundance), February 23, 1991 (Berlin), March 13, 1991 (NYC)
Running time: 78 minutes
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: $500,000
Box office: $3,779,620
IDA Award, International Documentary Association
LAFCA Award Best Documentary, Los Angeles Film Critics Association
Audience Award Best Documentary, San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival
Grand Jury Prize Documentary, Sundance Film Festival
Teddy Award for Best Documentary Film, Berlin International Film Festival
Boston Society of Film Critics Awards (BSFC) Best Documentary
Open Palm Award, Gotham Awards
NYFCC Award Best Documentary, New York Film Critics Circle Awards
Golden Space Needle Award Best Documentary, Seattle International Film Festival
Outstanding Film (Documentary), GLAAD Media Awards
NSFC Award Best Documentary, National Society of Film Critics
Cinema Eye Honours Legacy Award
Added to the National Film Registry
Purchased and distributed by The Criterion Collection/Janus Films (February 25)

The film explores the elaborately-structured ball competitions in which contestants, adhering to a very specific “category” or theme, must “walk” (much like a fashion model parades a runway). Contestants are judged on criteria including their dance talent, the beauty of their clothing, and the “realness” of their drag (i.e., their ability to pass as a member of the group or sex they are portraying). For example, the category “banjee realness” comprises gay men portraying macho archetypes such as sailors, soldiers, and street hoodlums. “Banjee boys” are judged by their ability to pass as their straight counterparts in the outside world.

Most of the film alternates between footage of balls and interviews with prominent members of the scene, including Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Angie Xtravaganza, and Willi Ninja. Many of the contestants vying for trophies are representatives of “houses” that serve as intentional families, social groups, and performance teams. Houses and ball contestants who consistently win trophies for their walks eventually earn “legendary” status.

Jennie Livingston, who moved to New York after graduating from Yale to work in film, spent six years[6] making Paris Is Burning, and interviewed key figures in the ball world. Many of them contribute monologues that shed light on gender roles, gay and ball subcultures, and their own life stories. The film explains how words such as house, mother, shade, reading and legendary gain new meaning when used in novel ways to describe the gay and drag subculture. The “houses” serve as surrogate families for young ball-walkers who face rejection from their biological families for their gender expression and sexual orientation.

The film also explores how its subjects deal with issues such as AIDS, racism, poverty, violence and homophobia. Some, such as Venus Xtravaganza, become sex workers to support themselves. (Near the end of the film, Angie Xtravaganza, Venus’s “house mother”, reacts to news that Venus is found strangled to death and speculates that a disgruntled client killed her.) Others shoplift clothing so they can “walk” in the balls. Several are disowned by transphobic and homophobic parents, leaving them vulnerable to homelessness. Some subjects save money for sex reassignment surgery, while a few have completely transitioned; others receive breast implants without undergoing vaginoplasty.

According to Livingston, the documentary is a multi-leveled exploration of an African-American and Latino subculture that serves as a microcosm of fame, race, and wealth in the larger US culture.[8] Through candid one-on-one interviews, the film offers insight into the lives and struggles of its subjects and the strength, pride, and humor they display to survive in a “rich, white world.”

Drag is presented as a complex performance of gender, class, and race, and a way to express one’s identity, desires and aspirations. The African-American and Latino community depicted in the film includes a diverse range of sexual identities and gender presentations, from “butch queens”(gay cisgender men) to transgender women, to drag queens, to butch women.

The film also documents the origins of “voguing”, a dance style in which competing ball-walkers pose and freeze in glamorous positions as if being photographed for the cover of Vogue.

However, Livingston maintained in 1991 that the film was not just about dance:

“This is a film that is important for anyone to see, whether they’re gay or not. It’s about how we’re all influenced by the media; how we strive to meet the demands of the media by trying to look like Vogue models or by owning a big car. And it’s about survival. It’s about people who have a lot of prejudices against them and who have learned to survive with wit, dignity and energy.”

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