Film School & Chill: ‘Paris Is Burning’

This week, the themes of drag and decadence continue at Film School & Chill as Rohan Stephens delves into the flamboyant documentary Paris is Burning, the film that put the lens on the New York Ball scene of the mid-1980s.

While predominantly glamorous on the surface, the documentary is also a rather serious study of the reality of what it means to be a gay and/or trans living in New City and, by default, anywhere in the world.


PARIS IS BURNING, 1990. Dir., Jennie Livingston.

What is it?

It began life as a documentary; a photographic exploration into a subculture of queer Black and Latino groups, heavily marginalised by modern America but still finding the energy and strength to express their dreams and aspirations through fashion and performance. It was a peek into another world, operating beneath the day-to-day hum of New York City in the late 1980s that showed us that creativity and freedom of expression can still flourish under social oppression. But what it turned into was something else entirely.

According to director Jennie Livingston, she began by simply photographing the New York Ball scene in the mid-’80s but, after raising funding for a more significant project, she was able to commence filming what would soon become the documentary Paris is Burning which, as it stands now, is one of the few comprehensive and surviving resources the world has on this important period in time.

Paris is Burning follows the lives of several prominent members of the scene which include Angie Xtravaganza, Venus Xtravaganza, Dorian Corey, Paris Dupree, Peppa LaBeija and Willi Ninja and explores the all-consuming nature of Ball culture on their lives and the lives of others involved. We watch them all pull together the most lavish and glamorous of outfits on the most meagre of budgets and often no budget at all. We see them working, rushing through the streets of the city, late at night – so late it’s early – earning a living but still finding time to compete. We see them sweating in the stuffy, smoke filled halls, but still composed and focused, participating fully in the fantasy of what it means to be able to dress up and embody the image of their dreams. We see them strutting down the hardwood floors through the crowds of other participants. We see competitors, aligned with their various ‘Houses’ demarcated by their chosen names (like Xtravaganza and LaBeija), dressed to the nines, to partake in categories that have them compete for the best Butch Queen, Femme Queen, Women’s Vogue or Body.

Enjoy ‘Paris is Burning’ for all its flamboyance and camp … but don’t let their struggle for acceptance, tolerance and visibility get lost behind the sequins.

For those watching for the first time, you will begin to see and hear the origins of what has now become mainstay phrases and behaviour in contemporary drag culture. Ru Paul pays continuous homage to the film in his eponymous show through things like the ‘Reading’ challenges. Queens too young to even remember life before social media are sprouting classic lines from the film, screaming “Tens, tens, tenss across the board!” as they sashay through clubs. It’s testament to the powerfully enduring nature of Paris is Burning to be able to show generation after generation of queer kids the origins of aspects of their culture and the plight that pioneers of the scene had to endure for acceptance and tolerance.

There have also been delicious segments of pop culture inspired by the Ball scene including Malcolm McLaren’s stylish single Deep In Vogue, which sampled many of the more famous queens of the day (and which subsequently inspired Madonna’s single Vogue), and Ryan Murphy’s heavily stylised television series, Pose.


Why should I have already seen it?

There’s a hell of a lot to unpick here… Rarely has a documentary been able to spark such wide and ongoing debate not just about its subject matter but also the mere nature of its production as well. On one hand, we have a hugely entertaining film that showcases an incredibly vibrant and creative culture and whose narrative is at once both lavish and tragic. A film that has become a time capsule of information, of personal narratives and cultural histories where unfortunately there exists very little other documentation. But on the other hand, we have the issue of a white (albeit queer) director, standing behind a camera filming predominantly P.O.C as they go about the normalcy of their severely marginalised lives. It’s a hugely complex issue that anyone willing to partake in watching Paris is Burning should always keep at the forefront of their mind. Behind the handbags and heels, behind the outfits and choreography, there also runs a steady and very serious subtext of the reality of what it means to be a gay and/or trans P.O.C living in New City and, by default, anywhere in the world, in the mid-1980s.

The stunning visuals of the participants twirling, and dancing down makeshift catwalks are punctuated with stories of discrimination, intolerance, violence and, tragically, even death of members of the scene featured in the film.

Enjoy Paris is Burning for all its flamboyance and camp; laugh along with the contestants as they heap shade onto one another and cheer them on when they win. Be amazed by their outfits and graceful movements and listen to their humble wisdom on life, love and family, but don’t let their struggle for acceptance, tolerance and visibility get lost behind the sequins.


Where do I find it?


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