Octavia St. Laurent in Paris Is Burning (1990) (IMDB)

Before Ru Paul and Trixie Mattel There Was the Ball Circuit: ‘Paris Is Burning’

Told through the voices and movements of the legends and pioneers of the ’80s Harlem drag-ball scene, Paris Is Burning is an indispensable look at one of America’s most influential subcultures of the last half-century.

Paris Is Burning
Jennie Livingston
25 February 2020

The ’80s was an era of explosive subcultural and countercultural activity in the western world. These events were deeply rooted in the social movements of the previous two decades and were a response to the conservative hegemony heralded by the twin commands of US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. New York, of course, was an epicenter of this rebellion: early punk, which began in the ’70s in NYC clubs and branched out into dozens of regionally distinct scenes. Hip-hop and the black- and LGBTQ-led electronic music movement emerged out of urban discos and dance clubs; American independent and avant-garde cinema found a home outside of Hollywood; and both gender and queer studies rode new waves of academic importance.

But of all these movements, no underground subculture has proven to be quite as vastly influential (i.e., pillaged, appropriated, and stolen from) while at the same time suffering such extensive erasure and denied broader mainstream acceptance and acknowledgment, as the ’80s drag ballroom circuit of Harlem. This moment is explored vividly in the classic 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.

Told through the voices and movements of the scene’s drag legends and voguing pioneers like Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Willi Ninja, and Venus Xtravaganza—most of whom never found the wider recognition of their modern equivalents—Paris Is Burning is a semi-vérité-style document of the lives of the LGBTQ people of color involved in the burgeoning drag-ball culture of the ’80s. We recognize such people now through household figures like RuPaul and Madonna.

The film is directed by Jennie Livingston, a white, then-inexperienced filmmaker and newcomer to the world of Harlem drag shows who intentionally constructs the film from the perspective of an outsider. The performance events blend fashion, dance, pageant, theater, and competitive sport into a one-of-a-kind spectacle—r. Livingston delves into the everyday struggles of the film’s subjects and invites them to explain the rules and formatting of the ballroom competitions and the now-iconic street lingo (“voguing”, “reading”, “shade”, etc.) popular within the scene. Through audacious close-ups and swaggering tracking shots that mirror the performers’ assertive strides, Livingston captures the electric attitudes and bold personalities of the ballroom in such a way that allows outside audiences a unique gateway into a world they would otherwise miss.

Revisiting Paris Is Burning via The Criterion Collection’s newly restored Blu-ray release, I was struck by how much of it is really a celebratory and heartening portrait of community and personal expression. I had remembered the film—which sees the performers deal with issues of prejudice and poverty outside the glamor of the ballroom—as being much more viscerally harrowing than it is. But make no mistake, Paris Is Burning is grounded in real issues. It’s set during the age of the AIDS crisis, which ravaged the New York gay community and exponentially amplified global homophobic and transphobic resentment.

This was also the time of Mayor Ed Koch’s urban war on drugs, which escalated police violence and racism against poor black and Latino city residents. Further, there was a general return to the racist and xenophobic white American traditionalism that Reagan’s administration fostered and championed. (One of the first shots of the film is of the World Trade Center news ticker beaming out the headline, “White Supremacist Church Begins National Conference”.) Near the end of the movie one of the film’s subjects, Venus Xtravaganza (whose picture graces the cover of Criterion’s reissue of the film), is suddenly revealed to have been murdered, while many others depicted in the film would die from AIDS in the years following its release. So yes, there is a kind of despair that looms quietly over Paris Is Burning.

What we see is a community founded on support and love. In addition to the means for survival, this community provided a means of agency, recognition, and self-actualization for gay black youth in an unimaginably hostile society. Each of the drag-balls shown in the film is a nebula of life, color, and movement in the deep, often alienating space of urban America. It is, unfortunately, that sense of pageantry and flamboyant fantasy that has made drag culture so valuable as a commercially appropriated resource for today’s pop culture. But this film shows us the subculture in which drag was birthed, unbridled, but refined by decades of experimentation and ritualization. It’s here in all of its singular splendor.

But among all that vital authenticity is the idea that Paris Is Burning is also a film about performance and artificiality. It organically observes issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality in American society, but it touches on capitalism and the culture and performativity of consumerism, too. In some scenes, stalwarts like Corey, from the older days of ballroom drag, lament the shift in drag-ball aesthetics from extravagant homemade gowns to expensive designer pieces which, some participants admit, were usually stolen. What does it say about the illusions of wealth and power and labor that one can steal a $1k dress and be seen as elegant and opulent, or else painstakingly handcraft one’s gown only to be deemed somehow lesser and old-fashioned?

Paris Is Burning also asks viewers to consider the idea of drag as a performance of pure gender identity, whether that of stoic and powerful masculinity or graceful and sensual femininity. Performers enter into different categories based on their appearance or performance strengths; some dress up as business executives or wealthy yachters, others as military officers or street gang members, etc. Ultimately, the performance is a critique and manipulation of the social-construction of identities. While showing how the ballroom offers a chance for transformation and transition, Paris Is Burning also illustrates how the intersection of our performed identities and performance can be crossed freely and with confidence. This gives performers and their audiences a degree of power and agency. For the duration of the performance, anyway.

Paris Is Burning shows how essential one’s community is in fostering self-discovery, away from the poisonous influences of a wider cultural homogeneity. One may wonder about the people the documentary doesn’t capture on film: the black and Latino LGBTQ youth of rural America without access to a community familiar with their struggle and capable of nurturing their growth in a way their biological families often don’t.

Paris Is Burning is a reminder that these stories are out there, and where the people can, they are thriving together. At the end of the film, Dorian Corey, applying her makeup, tells the camera, “Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you’ve made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. You don’t have to bend the whole world.” Paris Is Burning isn’t about a community that bent the world, but for so many who survived in its embrace, it was the world.

* * *

Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade of Paris Is Burning is another prestigious release for the label, naturally featuring a ton of impactful special features. The edition’s best features are those which center largely around the voices of the ball community rather than the filmmakers. The audio commentary featuring Willi Ninja, Freddie Pendavis, Livingston, and the film’s editor Jonathan Oppenheim is essential for fans of the movie simply for Ninja and Pendavis’s anecdotes and interactions reminiscing over the period and the people—their close friends—that the film captures. Also included is over an hour of deleted scenes and outtakes, as well as a new conversation between Livingston and the cast, offering even greater access into the lives onscreen.

One of the most fascinating extras is a 1991 episode of The Joan Rivers Show, featuring Livingston and many of the film’s most prominent cast members. It shows just how big of a surprise sensation the film was around its release. Unfortunately, the show’s segments and interviews are, at times, uncomfortably outdated and exploitative, but it’s important to witness the rather inhospitable cultural context in which the film was received. This was an environment in which straight, white Americans were ready to laugh at the black drag, gay, and trans communities but would not accept them. (Granted, not much has changed since then.) Finally, the set’s booklet contains an essay by filmmaker Michelle Parkerson, plus Essex Hemphill’s deep-dive review of the film originally published in the Guardian in 1991, which focuses on crucial questions of white appropriation of black culture, materialism, and commodification of and within the ballroom movement, and white, heteronormative standards of beauty in the mainstream, among other concerns. It remains an important addendum to the film.