The film examines New Yorks mainly black and latino ball subculture, in which groups of queens, termed Houses (ex. House of Labeija, House of Xtravaganza), compete for prizes in categories like 'Realness' (most able to pass in the straight world), 'Pretty Girl', 'High Fashion Winter Sportswear', 'Miss Cheesecake', and 'Town and Country' to name just a few. Livingston's camera explores the lives of the different types of members within these Houses: famed drag queen Dorian Corey; House 'Mothers' Anji Xtravaganza, Wili Ninja and Pepper Labeija; young and beautiful transgender women Octavia St. Laurent; and gay men like Andre Christian. The documentary details the slang, rituals, and harsh behind the scenes realities of the balls, focusing partly on the hustling and stealing it takes many people to survive and still look glamorous for the ball runways. However, most importantly the film explores how this specific group of disadvantaged people has responded to oppression.
Paris Is Burning is a defining film of early 90's New Queer Cinema, and it stands virtually alone amongst the classics of this collection of texts, as a film which deals with ethnic/non-white gay culture. The only other contemporaneous film I can think of which deals with gay minorities is Isaac Julian's Looking for Langston (1989). There have been some -- notably bell hooks -- who have critiqued its counter-cultural position and non-white address because it was authored by a white women, but I don't think this line of thinking enriches any discussion, appreciation, or understanding of the film. Livingston focuses on the disadvantages of the combination of race and sexuality and therefore exposes the inequalities inherent in society at large, as well as a gay movement which purports to speak for everyone. The black and latino drag queens and transgendered women are viewed as excluded not only from straight society, but also from the predominantly white gay culture. The non-whiteness and queerness of the ballers excludes them from any substantive form of power, fame, success, and money. The balls then act as a means of appropriating, claiming, and legitimising the right of this group to success and wealth.
In the words of Dorian Corey (pictured)
In real life you can't get a job as an executive, unless you have the educational background and the opportunity. Now the fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of life....black people have a hard time getting anywhere, and those that do are usually straight. In a ball room you can be anything you want, you're not really an executive, you're looking like one, and you are showing the straight world 'I can be an executive. If I had the opportunity I could be one because I can look like one', and that is a fulfillment.This really sums up Paris Is Burning's raison d'etre: showing how ball culture responds to and resists domination and oppressions of the mainstream.
The film is incredibly complex, yet endlessly enjoyable. The costumes, cattiness, wit, and excess of Hollywood's representations of drag culture are present in spades in Livingston's documentary. However, the director and her subjects situate these characteristics beside the reasons for why they have developed and the functions they serve. By placing the realities beside the glamour and the realness, the viewer enjoys the camp while critiquing the systematic oppression.
This is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. It's exciting to see how much this film has to say and how exquisitely it says it. Also, on an Oscar note, apparently there was outrage when it failed to secure a Best Documentary nomination... Scandal!
[Nathaniel's note: Matt's right. I remember this scandal well. Though IMDB lists Paris is Burning as a 1990 film, it was released in 1991 and became a major arthouse hit earning nearly $4 million at the US box office. That's a lot of $ for a gay documentary at the box office. It wasn't the only high profile snub for documentary that Oscar year either. Two very famous showbiz docs, Madonna's frisky tour diaries Truth or Dare and the behind-the-scenes-with-Coppola doc Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse were also snubbed. Here's an old article from EW on the controversy. It was written by none other than Jeffrey Wells.]
What do you readers think of this movie and its relation to more mainstream and lighthearted depictions of drag culture?
Paris is Burning is available for purchase on Amazon and for rental on Netflix, Blockbuster and GreenCine