Directed by Jennie Livingston and filmed in the mid to late 80s, Paris Is Burning (1990) is a cult documentary that focuses on the New York City drag scene of the 80s; its drag balls, vogue culture, and the various characters and groups that helped to make the drag scene what it is today. Paris Is Burning showcases the lively nature of these drag balls, and the fascinating people – queens, kings, and observers – that surround them. Fans of Ru Paul’s Drag Race and other camp pop culture tidbits may be aware of drag terminology such as ‘fierce’ and ‘throwing shade’, but Paris Is Burning shows where those terms came from – a genuinely, fiercely proud scene that grew up out of nothing, to incorporate groups (or, houses) of drag queens, and to then become a social and cultural phenomenon.
This is one pretty amazing documentary. Shot in a combination of talking head interviews and lively footage of drag balls in New York City, Paris Is Burning was shot over a couple of years, and hence doesn’t have too much of a narrative that I can see. There’s no voice over – each individual tells their own story. The film is more of an exploration of this scene and its memorable characters, and how the characters and the scene changes over time. From its DIY aesthetic beginnings, to the commercialism of the height of its popularity, the drag balls are shown in excruciating detail. All of the linguistic terms associated with them are displayed on the screen, examined, and defined by the key players of the scene. That’s one of the best things about this film – its willingness to share and educate the viewers that are unaware of this subculture. But at the same time, Paris Is Burning is never exploitative, which it easily could have been without the sensitive handling of director Jennie Livingston. Paris Is Burning is as much about building a community as it is about sharing a community, on the community’s terms.
Paris Is Burning is obviously best known for its exploration of drag culture, but it is also notable for its exploration of male, African American, gay culture. One subject of the documentary notes that by being all three – male, black, and gay – all the odds are stacked up against him. The idea of layers of discrimination can be quite a confronting issue when subjects explain their predicaments. Adding to this, the exploration of the reality of what it is to be born one gender and identify as another is briefly discussed, with one particularly tragic example. My only real issue with this film is that it has slightly dated in the way that it separates the groups of the film – gay, drag queen, and transgender. Often drag queens and transgender people are almost lumped together in the film, and nowadays I’m not sure this would be the case; although there could be an overlap, whatever the size, expected between the two. The use of the term ‘transvestite’ is also kind of cringe-worthy. But this is a film from the 80s, and awareness of these issues has developed since then, I would say for the better.
What you’ll remember the most about Paris Is Burning, though, are its outlandish and extremely watchable subjects. From Venus Xtravaganza who dreams of being a “a spoiled, rich, white girl living in the suburbs”, to Pepper LaBeija, the reigning mother of House LaBeija, to the two gay teenagers who are interviewed occasionally – each subject is so memorable and filled with spirit that it makes you wonder what happened in their lives outside of this film. Where did each of these amazing performers end up? We’re given answers for some, but not for others. Perhaps that’s one of the many meanings of this film; to watch, enjoy, and participate in the madness while it’s happening, and not to worry about the madness outside of it. An excellent documentary.
Watch the trailer here.
Watch this film at Amazon!