celebrating the influence of legendary documentary paris is burning

As the documentary turns 25 and celebrates gaining legendary status with Cinema Eye’s Legacy Award, we say why the film will forever be a 10.

by Colin Crummy
16 January 2015, 12:20pm

Jennie Livingston was an NYU student when she first saw some queer kids vogueing in Washington Square Park, downtown Manhattan. She spent seven years with them, immersing herself in their Harlem-based, drag ball culture. 25 years later and the resulting documentary, Paris is Burning, has been honoured with the Legacy Award by Cinema Eye, which celebrates non-fiction film-making. But for a time it looked like that legacy would not live on.

Of all of the lights to go out in seminal drag ball documentary, Paris is Burning, it was tiny firecracker transsexual Venus Xtravaganza that the audience can see coming. The film's most vulnerable character aspired to be a spoiled, white rich girl and turned tricks in late 80s downtown Manhattan to finance a sex change. Before the film's end, Venus was found strangled under a hotel bed.

But the Harlem ball culture documented by filmmaker Jennie Livingston in Paris is Burning was also on its knees by the time of the film's release. The voguers and posers and drags of the African American and Latino gay and transgender communities that dressed up and walked like they owned it, were also on a tragic trajectory.

Drag balls can be traced all the way back to Harlem in the 1920s. The product of a gay, non-white underclass acting out privileged, unattainable fantasies like Yale college kids, Wall Street executives and catwalk models, it took Paris is Burning's cinema release in 91 to bring the subculture to a wider audience.

By 93, the mainstream was reporting back that the subculture had died. A New York Times piece charting the demise of the scene and its main players carried the headline 'Paris Has Burned'. The Houses, the name given to each competing group led by a 'Mother' or 'Father' of the House who acted as fiercest guardians of their collection of waifs and strays, had been ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. The NYT reporter was at Angie Xtravaganza's funeral, the Mother of the House of Xtravaganza was only one of many deaths from AIDS related complications.

Way before then popular culture had seized upon Paris's style and language for its own ends. Even before the film's release, Malcolm McLaren and Madonna had appropriated ball culture's language and dance moves to bring Vogue to an international mainstream audience. The elevation of drag ball culture into the mainstream was bitterly ironic, precisely because the ball participants were excluded from the mainstream. The numerous categories that contestants walked in from 'Butch Queen' to 'Schoolboy/Schoolgirl Realness' and 'Town and Country', were competitions to exist momentarily in a social sphere that because of gender, politics, sexuality and race excluded the LGBT African American and Latino communities.

As Dorian Corey, the wise old drag of Paris is Burning, put it in the film: "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 simply because of the social standing of life. Black people have a hard time getting anywhere and those that do are usually straight."

Even the limelight shed by the film didn't translate into opportunity for its participants. There were attempts by cast members to sue the filmmakers for royalties, as Paris became a successful documentary. Only voguer Willi Ninja made a name for himself outside the ball drag circuit, modeling for Jean Paul Gaultier and appearing on national television. Mainstream culture embraced drag ball style. RuPaul, who was schooled in drag in downtown Manhattan, not Harlem's ball culture, took dressing up into the heart of US pop culture. Madonna made Vogue appear as her own invention. As NYT reporter Jesse Green wrote in her 1993 piece, this left the originators out in the cold. "Once mainstream America began to copy a subculture that was copying it," wrote Green, "the subculture itself was no longer of interest to a wider audience, and whatever new opportunities existed for the principals dried up."

Yet the film still remains a source of powerful iconography in popular culture. It has been relentlessly mimed and referenced in music videos from Zebra Katz to Azealia Banks. Artists from Beyonce to Ciara have included nods to the queer kids and their houses in their lyrics. It remains a vital course of study for queer kids in 2015, who then bring their realness to a contemporary ball, albeit with YouTube learned dance routines and Instagrammable looks, like the kind worn by East End children of London's Sink the Pink collective.

It would be wrong to dismiss the pop culture magpies of lifting Paris's iconic dance, works and style simply for aesthetic reasons. There is real queer power in Paris is Burning that still resonates even with LGBT kids who have never known a time before liberation. There is still a desire to own that identity, as witnessed by the steady, slow burn, word of mouth success of RuPaul's Drag Race, which cannot be examined without the stylistic and linguistic debts it owes to drag ball culture.

RuPaul acknowledged that debt in her film Starrbooty, quoting Paris is Burning. Drag ball jargon helped Drag Race firmly imprint itself on the queer cultural circuit with its emphasis on 'throwing shade', the smartest of putdowns. On a more fundamental level, though Drag Race deals in the light tropes of reality TV, it retains the politics of Paris is Burning. In its silliness, it shines a light on a subculture and a group of people marginalized by sexuality, gender, race and politics. It tells their stories.

"We're dealing with people who have been shunned by society and have made a life regardless of what anyone else thinks of them have decided," RuPaul told the Guardian last year. "It shows the tenacity of the human spirit, which each of us watching relates to. And we root for them. I think that's what's so captivating about it, seeing how these beautiful creatures have managed to prevail."

25 years on, it's those kind of beautiful creatures that make Paris is Burning shine so bright. 


Text Colin Crummy

Paris Is Burning
Jennie Livingston
cinema eye
cinema eye’s legacy award