30 years after the debut of Paris is Burning, we have become more culturally aware of the niche of gay culture that the movie portrays – the Ballroom scene – and yet a more widespread acknowledgement for the movie itself is culturally overdue. We have binged on Pose, and perhaps on RuPaul’s Drag Race; queer vernacular has become so notably present in the daily lexicon of the media and urban culture as we hear references such as “throwing shade” or perhaps describe someone’s style as showing “realness”. How many of us are aware of the roots of these “new” cultural phenomena, as we pick them up from entertainment media?
A little background first – these Queer balls took their roots from the earlier form they had in Harlem, during the 20s and 30s, where drag and queerness also ruled the roost in the decadences of the era, to be snatched where they could be among the lives of Harlem residents. What started as low key gatherings grew to lavish, sought out experiences where the more daring white uptowners would sometimes go “slumming”, taking in the daring spectacle for themselves. In fact, one of the most well known of these was founded by the Odd Fellows – Hamilton Lodge 710; these galas were talked about and anticipated at length, and were written about in glorious fashion by the peridicals of that era. The Balls of the 80s came from that illustrious heritage in Harlem.
Paris Is Burning showed us the world of the “Ballroom” scene, this time centered in NYC during the 80s. Black gay men and women were the primary culture of these balls; performers sought out the support of a “House” of reputation in which a “Mother” would nurture and encourage these younger members of the queer community, and in which the “children” would flesh out respectability and power among their own. This engrossing documentary examines the inner workings of this community, from which we have seen white performers such as Madonna appropriate “voguing”, bringing it into the greater public view. It is a blunt and beautiful, heart wrenching and yet humane tale of unity within the queer community, and of overcoming the obstacles that so many of this community experienced. Thrown out of their homes for their queerness, vulnerable to violence and assault, down to be surviving as best they could, with dignity and audaciousness. It is this resilience that provides the meaty central theme of the movie. We see the lives of Black and Latinx queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming folk up close, intimately. They stand proud with each other against society at large throughout the movie, with elegance and poise. This support of each other in the face of societal opposition is the thematic center of Paris Is Burning, a fact that remains a major factor in its lasting appeal.
The joy of our voyeurism is rewarded as we witness the pride, the DEFIANCE, in those we see walking the ball even as America grappled (or rather, ignored) the AIDS pandemic. We see the effects of racism and economic disadvantage; there is poverty, homelessness, and escape from violence. We hear them talk of daily experiences of homophobia and transphobia, the struggles of addiction. Tales of sex work are shared. Each of these performers sought a way to their dreams while pushing away the darkness. If that darkness wasn’t clear enough, the movie will bring it front and center with the death of one of the most vivacious and hopeful of the performers, at the hand of violence, cracking the hope inherent in the narrative and brutalizing us with the reality of queer existence in NYC in the 80s as a poor person of color. In today’s world of Trump and right wing narratives, sinking us into a miasma reminiscent of the anxieties of the scene we are witnessing, Paris Is Burning still provides a beacon of bright and shining fortitude…proclaiming a loud and rainbow hued message that queer and trans lives matter more than ever. The revelations that this movie revealed to us in the 90s is as relevant now as ever, bringing it to the realm of lasting infamy, a rallying cry, then and now.
A documentary produced by Jennie Livingston, Paris is Burning gathered lots of praise and recognition…but not without criticism. Livingston was privileged, an Ivy educated woman who took a path that allowed her to study photography and painting at Yale. An out lesbian feminist by the early eighties, she lived and worked in New York by the mid 80s; taking up activism to the cause of AIDS awareness and prevention with ACT UP. She became familiar with a group of young performers of the Ballroom, practicing their dance and walk styles publicly, leading her to the Harlem ball scene. Her interest started as a photography project, soon expanding to the concept of a documentary with the support of not just family and friends, but local communities of indie filmmakers and queer movie festivals. Even so, she struggled to get the movie out and distributed. Livingston was still subjected to criticism, as many saw the accomplishment of Paris is Burning as an appropriation of a Black gay subculture by a privileged white filmmaker without concern that her queerness gave her entrance to this scene. There were quibbles later about money as the movie garnered praise and exposure. Lawsuits were threatened. Participants felt cheated when the film made close to $4 million and thought to sue, but were dissuaded when Livingston’s lawyer confirmed they had indeed signed the necessary forms. Later, $55,000 was distributed among the 13 performers, a little more than a tenth of the cost of making the film, and unusual for a documentary in which paying performers is not the norm. This still comes up- in 2014, when the film was to be screened for a public event hosted by Celebrate Brooklyn!/ BRIC, protest and petitions were raised against the event until such a time that Livingston would apologize for her appropriation of the ball culture to her advantage and profit.
The biggest message the film brought to the table for us to witness, then and now, is the concept of intersectionality—the place where discrimination on various aspects of our existences all intersect, compounding – race, gender, sexual identity, age, class, weight, ableness. While that intersectionality is the most pressing message within, the most lasting impressions in the documentary come from the performance competitions themselves, as they parody and take on a challenge they deal with daily – “passing” through the masks of society around them, be it their “heterosexual counterparts”, the rich and famous, the elegant and worldly, primarily taking elements of privileged culture. They play with gender like toys, seeming at times effortless in their presentations of high femininity and masculinity for a world out of reach to them as queers. They represented items such as “yacht wear”, business attire, the looks of private school kids, of high fashion evening wear, military garb, and just straight up “realness” in which they strove to represent themselves as if they were straight. They weren’t above parodying the shadows and darker elements of their communities either – sometimes strolling like a local G, or the sexy stride of a ‘round the way girl of the prowl. Gender is performative, and nowhere is that idea clearer than here.
Paris is Burning is still a very powerful look into Queer Culture from a time that lacked the media coverage of today, solidifying its stance as an important documentation of a culture we may never have witnessed to this extent, in it’s own glory, rather than the forms it has taken in the past such as Vogueing a la Madonna, or today as queer culture grows in popularity and acceptance. It’s a peek into a life even peers of the day may not have witnessed, save for the grand silver screen. I am one of those peers. And I am grateful I bore witness to this slice of queer life in the shadows of NYC.
Love that you covered intersectionality and got to the statement ‘gender is performative.’ Have you read Judith Butler and her theories on performativity? She also has been criticized in a similar fashion to Livingston. I think you would enjoy her work though. This was a great film to cover!
We are reading Butler in one of my classes right now, and discussing this film and these concepts…I remember when this film came out, it was a whole new concept that helped shaped the future me. After the recent popularity of drag as mass media entertainment and the success of Pose, plus life experience, it certainly reads far differently and his differently than it did when I first saw this movie.