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.”
The film became a rallying cry for a wider world of queer expression and a recognition of the struggles of those who existed fearlessly “in the Life.” It has helped to bring about everything from the twenty-first-century rise of LGBTQ balls in Paris, London, Tokyo, and Cape Town to FX’s popular, Emmy Award–winning drama series Pose, which depicts a fictionalized version of the same New York ballroom scene of the eighties and nineties we see in the documentary. Realness is Paris’s manifesto. 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.
Paris Is Burning expanded the nonfiction-filmmaking tradition. It is not only a politically astute, historically vital record of lives not typically given such a platform, in a particular place and time, but an embodiment of the axiom that great documentaries must also be good dramas. Like such groundbreaking practitioners of the form as Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles brothers, Camille Billops, Barbara Hammer, and Marlon Riggs, Livingston demonstrates a deft ability to broaden the social contexts of observational filmmaking and personal narratives by using engaging performance as documentary evidence.
Livingston’s approach to bringing Paris Is Burning to fruition was something of an anomaly. A self-described “white, Ivy-educated Jewish kid, born in Texas and raised in LA,” she was, after studying photography and painting at Yale, “driven by a desire to explore filmmaking.” She has described the seven years it took to make Paris Is Burning as “my self-taught graduate school.” Having come of age and come out as a lesbian feminist in the early eighties, she was a photographer who moved to New York in 1985 and became active in ACT UP, the grassroots AIDS awareness and prevention organization that was founded in 1987. Indeed, mid-to-late-eighties New York City, in all its predigital grit, is another tangible presence in the film—an urban landscape that predates the Disneyfication of Forty-Second Street and the gentrification of Harlem.
Absorbed in discovering and documenting the city, Livingston found herself drawn to a cluster of young Black queens voguing and throwing “category” shade among themselves in Washington Square Park. This happenstance led her to the Harlem ball scene and the desire to capture it, her concept enlarging over time from a small photo project to a feature-length documentary. She had the stalwart support of friends, family, mentors, other independent filmmakers, WNYC-TV, and the queer-cinema festival circuit (I first saw the film at New York’s NewFest in June 1990) in making and showing the film, but she then struggled to find distribution. For Livingston, Paris Is Burning became a life’s journey.
The participants in the documentary are impressively diverse: Dorian Corey, a stately diva from the bygone era of Harlem showgirl drag queens, narrates and delivers some of the most insightful and invective sound bites in the film. (“If everybody went to balls and did less drugs, it would be a fun world, wouldn’t it?”) Pepper LaBeija, the fortyish mother of the House of LaBeija, has endured two decades of trends in the illusory world of the Children and remained a marvel of style and attitude. Willi Ninja—one of the success stories of Paris Is Burning, handsome, exceptionally talented and disciplined, ambitious—is a young man who hitches his star to crossover dreams of MTV voguing. Octavia Saint Laurent is a beautiful model who aspires to high fashion and a sex reassignment operation. And then there’s Venus Xtravaganza, a tough but delicate multiracial trans woman whose grisly murder reveals the seamy underworld of the Life—hustling, homelessness, AIDS. In fact, many of the performers shown in the documentary ultimately died of complications from AIDS or poor access to health care.
This cross section of voices and personal stories provides the film’s structure and skillful transitions. What they all have in common is the experience of marginalization—even ostracization—by their families, the Black and Latinx communities, the larger society. Walking the ballroom floor, however, the Children find status, acceptance, and worth. The Harlem ball scene had become a locus of revolutionary acts, where eighties pop culture, mass media, and consumerism were skewered and LGBTQ life was magnified. Take, for example, a scene showing the category Yachting Wear: Ball walkers parody every avaricious detail of the Glamorous Life, replete with jodhpurs and riding crops, endless silk scarves, captain’s hats accessorized with binoculars and sunshades, elaborate sailing regalia, and, of course, crystal flutes of champagne, carried by participants as they execute flawless pirouettes. One statuesque beauty is enfolded in white fur, her Chihuahua in tow wearing pearls.
“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.”
The ballroom culture documented in Paris Is Burning was a contemporary expression of a ritual that had been nurtured by Black and Latino gay men since the late nineteenth century. According to researcher Oliver Stabbe, “In 1869, within Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge, drag balls began . . . The balls were crucial in the creation and maintenance of LGBTQ culture.” By the 1920s, the Harlem balls had metamorphosed from clandestine community gatherings into lavish spectacles. These were annual, eagerly awaited events throughout the thirties, sponsored by civic groups such as the Grand Lodge of Odd Fellows, or extravagant costume masquerades held at large social halls—the Rockland Palace or the Savoy Ballroom. The soirees were often benefit galas attended by well-to-do Harlem strivers, the general public, and white “swells” slumming it uptown. The sensational details of these balls were highlighted in the society and entertainment columns of mainstream Black newspapers (the New York Age, the Amsterdam News) and weeklies of the time.
In his lively 1995 study The Harlem Renaissance, Steven Watson notes this 1929 report by columnist Geraldyn Dismond of the Inter-State Tattler: “Of course, a costume ball can be a very tame thing, but when all the exquisitely gowned women on the floor are men and a number of the smartest men are women, ah then, we have something over which to thrill and grow round-eyed.” As Watson goes on to point out, not all those in attendance were gay; many of them came to watch the spectacle. He writes of one such event, “These onlookers ascended a gold-banistered staircase to the box seats . . . and looked down on the Grand March of ersatz divas promenading beneath . . . and a creature called ‘La Flame,’ who wore only a white satin stovepipe hat, a red-beaded breastplate, and a white sash.”
With such a detour into decadence, who could have imagined Harlem gay balls would evolve into the hardscrabble displays of elegance, handmade artistry, and searing cultural critique of the eighties—the era of the rich and famous? Who could have foreseen storied Jazz Age gay pageantry morphing into stylized battles among poor, young, and homeless New Yorkers seeking validation and visibility on the ballroom floor? Or the huge commercial appropriation of Black and Brown LGBTQ culture and music embodied by Madonna’s 1990 hit “Vogue”? As Corey observes about ball participants in the film, “Seventy-five percent of them wouldn’t know what a ball was,” while Pepper LaBeija laments the diminution of ball icons from showgirls to movie stars to superstars to models.
In a later segment, Corey—applying eye shadow in her dressing room, ensconced in mirrors, makeup, and a turquoise boa—sagaciously explains the ball’s allure:
It’s a small fame. You like the adulation, the applause . . . In real life, you can’t get an executive job unless you have the educational background and the opportunity. Black people have a hard time getting anywhere. And those that do are usually straight. In a ballroom, you look like an executive, and you’re therefore showing the straight world that you can be an executive.
White society isn’t the only sacrificial lamb on the ballroom floor. Many of the “realness” masterpieces in Paris Is Burning are biting parodies of the stereotypes Black people internalize about ourselves, such as the “Banjee” competition featuring impersonations of the gum-chewing, round-the-way girl on welfare or the crackhead gangbanger on the block. Corey succinctly airs her generation’s drag self-hatred: “When I grew up, you wanted to look like Marlene Dietrich or Betty Grable . . . Nobody wanted to look like Lena Horne.”
Paris Is Burning has proved to be a critical but controversial triumph. Much of the controversy has centered on a perceived appropriation of a Black gay subculture by a privileged white filmmaker. It has also involved the perennial question of who has the right to tell someone else’s story, which, I posit, is the lingering dilemma at the doorstep of any documentary project. Nonfiction films made in the eighties were particularly burdened with the heady agenda of “giving voice to the voiceless.” 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.
Ultimately, it was the prescience of the ball-scene Children and the insight of filmmaker Jennie Livingston to recognize that the real challenge was what, in twenty-first-century parlance, is known as intersectionality—the confluence of discrimination based on race, gender, sexual identity, age, class, body image, and physical ability. That is why Livingston’s documentary chronicle still has much to teach us about others, about ourselves. Now more than ever, the call for realness, that reverberating standard of ball excellence, is required.