Director: Jennie Livingston
I remember seeing the trailer for Paris is Burning (1990) when we went to see Slacker at the River Oaks in Houston in summer of 1990. A straight white 15-year-old from the suburbs of Austin, recently transplanted to the suburbs of Houston, the world of gender-bending queer Black culture was - you will be shocked to learn - not on my radar. It was so utterly alien to my experience that I was wildly curious - but I also was not going to have a ride back down to the River Oaks and asking to be taken to such a movie would be wildly transgressive, no matter how open minded my mom was.
I remember seeking out the doc a few times in college and being unable to find it, but mostly I'd forget about it except when it was mentioned in cultural touchstone moments, like pretty much anything having to do with Madonna post Vogue. But by and large, I just forgot about trying to watch it until I saw Alicia Malone was hosting it on TCM as part of the style-centric "Follow the Thread" programming series, and I set the DVR.
Well beyond Madonna, Paris is Burning has remained on the cultural radar for three decades as a touchstone of bringing certain aspects of LGBQT+ lifestyle to the (limited) masses that had previously existed mostly regionally in New York, where a culture of young, wildly disenfranchised gay, mostly Black, participants partake in "Balls" which are a series of competitions that are partly fashion show, partly dance-offs, partly drag shows, and entirely about presenting a fantasy of life out of reach to the participants. A dizzying array of competitive categories exist, reflecting fantasies of lives that can't be lived, from "passing" as women to "passing" as straight military men or even college students.
Filmed in NYC circa 1987 - it's two decades past Stonewall, but it's also well before RuPaul hit MTV and became everyone's favorite icon. The subjects are almost all runaways or former runaways, not just their sexuality at issue, but also their transexuality wedges with their families. The community and "houses" that comprise the "balls" creating an environment of found-family of shared experience and versions of dreams.
In 2022, much of the language presented in the doc as utterly unknown slang *had* to have been a first exposure to much of the audience, but in the here and now has become lingua franca of RuPaul's Drag Race, and therefore to simpletons like myself who have watched the show maybe four times. I was utterly shocked watching the film to find that the slang and ideas of the ball - and, indeed, creeping up to and included in widely known concepts like Lady Gaga's Monster's Ball (and Haus of Gaga) - or in fact, throwing shade, were all heard here.
The documentary does not have time to address every question the viewer may have watching the film, and in today's world would be an 8-part series, I'm sure. But the basic gist is the exploration of what we'd now call a safe space for people critically and constantly in danger for existing as LGBQT+ minority people with no money, with no family, and in many cases - barely a home. And within that safe space, exulting in their fantasy of what it must mean to be rich, and as they don't hesitate to say, white - the images they see on television and in print ads. I mean, those lifestyle ads of upper class people enjoying a day on a yacht smoking a cigarette or enjoying a J&B were *everywhere* before ideas of class and culture started trickling in from reality shows.
There's so much genuine *hope* in the voices of the subjects, for fame or wealth, sure. But also just for stability and someone to love them as individuals, even as they recreate themselves at the Balls or out on the streets of New York.
The film catches up again with a few subjects in 1989. One has gone on to fame and fortune, indeed, just as he dreamed. Another was found dead beneath the bed of a New York fleabag hotel.
Mentioned within the film, but not the focus, is that this film takes place as the AIDS crisis was tearing through the United States and before it was seen as much more than a "gay disease". And, certainly, a quick scan tells you that many, many of the subjects were lost to AIDS. Others, it's less clear, but everyone I looked up had passed, when all but one should be in their 60's at the oldest.
Look, this film and its opening of doors to cultural change and expression is a dissertation worth of content. I'm not properly equipped to discuss the film or the film's impact, but I think I get it on some level as I remember 1990 and what the 90's were like by 1999. Madonna would bring Vogue to the masses, RuPaul would be confusing my dad as he walked by the living room and I was watching TV. And I understand we're now having cultural battles where half the country is vigorously defending the trans population, which was possible in 1990, but... arguably that percentage would be shrinkingly small.
Btw, apparently some of the criticism of the film at the time came from lefty, terfy corners from POVs that are still alive and well today.
Weirdly, director Jennie Livingston would mostly not participate much in film again. She's listed as a producer on Pose, but mostly the first season at that. I dunno. She seems like she had a hell of a knack for it, but she seems to be someone who chases ideas and doesn't particularly care about the medium.
Frankly, the film kind of blew me away. It's raw, unfiltered, and vigorously pushes to make sure the voices of the subjects are heard. It's not a world I know about or particularly relate to, but the eye for finding the reality of the subjects makes them utterly understandable and largely relatable as it drills at the idea of motivation for each of the people allowing themselves to be seen.