In these times of Trumpidation, thirty years after its auspicious release, Paris Is Burning seems even more relevant than it did in early 1991, when I wrote the following for Black Film Review about Jennie Livingston’s phenomenal documentary on New York City’s ball culture of the mid-to-late eighties:
Paris Is Burning reveals the world of the “Children,” as Black gay men and women lovingly call ourselves . . . This riveting documentary examines the community’s flamboyant rituals of balls and “voguing.” The film emerges as something far beyond sensational anthropology. It is, ultimately, an up-front, humane chronicle of overcoming adversity with audacity.
That resilience of Black and Latinx queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming people—their ability to persist in self-affirmation, in the face of forces, both personal and impersonal, that are attempting to deny their very humanity—is the thematic core of Paris Is Burning, and it remains key to its enduring appeal.
The defiant joy we witness in the ball walkers at so many moments of the film, despite the AIDS pandemic, racism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty, homelessness, violence, harassment, addiction, and whatever other hardships they may have been dealing with at any given time, was infectious in 1990, when the film premiered, and remains so today. In this era of fake news, hate speech, anti-trans legislation, the resurgence of white-supremacist ideology, immigration blockades, and mass violence to suppress social change and human-rights advancements, Paris Is Burning still provides a vision of vibrant resistance—a fierce proclamation that queer and trans lives matter, now as they did then. That message, along with the unique performance culture and the everyday lives that Paris illuminates for us, made it a global revelation when it was released and has since elevated it to legendary status.
“Watching the exacting performances and outrageous mimicry of the American dream paraded on the ballroom floor, you witness brilliant works of individual survival and urban camouflage.”
“Power struggles over control of one’s image and access to the tools of media production were, and still are, crucial in communities of color.”
Mean Streets: Rites of Passage
Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough feature—a rare example of a work of personal cinema with broad popular appeal—delivers all the elements of his future career in one spectacular, bravura throw-down.
Bugs Bunny in the Shaolin Temple
In a string of wildly entertaining films released between the late seventies and the mideighties, Jackie Chan paved the way to his international stardom by turning himself into a real-life cartoon character.
Nanny: Troubled Water
With the full force of her imagination, director Nikyatu Jusu examines the complicated nature of Black motherhood, as well as the importance of Black communion as an antidote to racial oppression.
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