Paris Is Burning (film)  

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"Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, the nascent house music era, Paris Is Burning (1990) chronicles the ball culture of New York City's disenfranchised African American and Latino gay and transgendered patrons who were the same patrons of nightclubs such as the Paradise Garage." --Sholem Stein

"Within white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy the experience of men dressing as women, appearing in drag, has always been regarded by the dominant heterosexist cultural gaze as a sign that one is symbolically crossing over from a realm of power into a realm of powerlessness."--bell hooks on Paris is Burning in a piece published in Black Hooks

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Paris Is Burning is a 1990 American documentary film directed by Jennie Livingston. Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, it chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities involved in it. Critics consider the film to be an invaluable documentary of the end of the "Golden Age" of New York City drag balls, and a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America.

In 2016, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".



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Conception and production

Livingston studied photography and painting at Yale. After moving to New York, she was employed by The Staten Island Advance, a local newspaper. She left for one summer to study film at New York University in Greenwich Village. She was photographing in that neighborhood, in Washington Square Park, where she met two young men and was intrigued by their movements and the unusual slang they were using. She asked what they were doing and was told they were voguing. She went to her first ball, a mini-ball at the Gay Community Center on 13th Street, to film the ball as an assignment for her class at NYU. At that ball she saw Venus Xtravaganza for the first time.

After that, she spent time with Willi Ninja to learn about ball culture and voguing. She also researched African American history, literature, and culture, as well as reading up on queer culture and the nature of subcultures. She began to do audio interviews with several ball people: Venus and Danni Xtravaganza, Dorian Corey, Junior Labeija, Octavia St. Laurent and others. The main self-funded shoot was the Paris is Burning ball in 1986. From that footage, Livingston worked with editor Jonathan Oppenheim to edit a trailer, and with that piece, the production obtained funding from some grants, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, The Paul Robeson Fund, and the Jerome Foundation. Finally, Madison Davis Lacy, the head of public TV station WNYC, saw the material and put up $125,000 to fund the production. The producers still needed to raise additional funds to edit the film, which came primarily from executive producer Nigel Finch at the BBC-2 show Arena.

There was some followup production in 1989: to tell the story of voguing's entry into mainstream culture, and to tell the stories of Willi's international success as a dancer and of Venus Xtravaganza's murder, which remains unsolved. The filmmakers also did an additional interview with Dorian Corey, talking about "executive realness", "shade", and "reading". The film, which is 78 minutes long, was edited from around 75 hours of footage. It was shot on 16mm film, which is the only medium documentary filmmakers used in the mid-80s. It was an expensive medium, and the film took seven years to complete, largely because funding came from over 10 separate sources.

When completed, the producers still needed to raise funds for music clearances, as there was a lot of music playing in the ballrooms. It cost almost as much to clear the music as to shoot and edit the entire film.


The film explores the elaborately-structured ball competitions in which contestants, adhering to a very specific "category" or theme, must "walk" (much like a fashion model parades a runway). Contestants are judged on criteria including their dance talent, the beauty of their clothing, and the "realness" of their drag (i.e., their ability to pass as a member of the group or sex they are portraying). For example, the category "banjee realness" comprises gay men portraying macho archetypes such as sailors, soldiers, and street hoodlums. "Banjee boys" are judged by their ability to pass as their straight counterparts in the outside world.

Most of the film alternates between footage of balls and interviews with prominent members of the scene, including Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Angie Xtravaganza, and Willi Ninja. Many of the contestants vying for trophies are representatives of "houses" that serve as intentional families, social groups, and performance teams. Houses and ball contestants who consistently win trophies for their walks eventually earn "legendary" status.

Jennie Livingston, who moved to New York after graduating from Yale to work in film and spent six years making Paris Is Burning, interviews key figures in the ball world. Many of them contribute monologues that shed light on gender roles, gay and ball subcultures, and their own life stories. The film explains how words such as house, mother, shade, reading and legendary gain new meaning when used in novel ways to describe the gay and drag subculture. The "houses" serve as surrogate families for young ball-walkers who face rejection from their biological families for their gender expression and sexual orientation.

The film also explores how its subjects deal with issues such as AIDS, racism, poverty, violence and homophobia. Some, such as Venus Xtravaganza, become sex workers to support themselves. (Near the end of the film, Angie Xtravaganza, Venus's "house mother", reacts to news that Venus is found strangled to death and speculates that a disgruntled client killed her.) Others shoplift clothing so they can "walk" in the balls. Several are disowned by trans- and homophobic parents, leaving them vulnerable to homelessness. Some subjects save money for sex reassignment surgery, while a few have completely transitioned; others receive breast implants without undergoing vaginoplasty.

According to Livingston, the documentary is a multi-leveled exploration of an African-American and Latino subculture that serves as a microcosm of fame, race, and wealth in the larger US culture. Through candid one-on-one interviews, the film offers insight into the lives and struggles of its subjects and the strength, pride, and humor they display to survive in a "rich, white world."

Drag is presented as a complex performance of gender, class, and race, and a way to express one's identity, desires and aspirations. The African-American and Latino community depicted in the film includes a diverse range of sexual identities and gender presentations, from "butch queens"(gay cis men) to transgender women, to drag queens, to butch women.

The film also documents the origins of "voguing", a dance style in which competing ball-walkers pose and freeze in glamorous positions as if being photographed for the cover of Vogue.

However, Livingston maintained in 1991 that the film was not just about dance:
"This is a film that is important for anyone to see, whether they're gay or not. It's about how we're all influenced by the media; how we strive to meet the demands of the media by trying to look like Vogue models or by owning a big car. And it's about survival. It's about people who have a lot of prejudices against them and who have learned to survive with wit, dignity and energy."


The film received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts during the period when the organization was under fire for funding controversial artists including Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. Aware that publicity surrounding her project could result in revoked funding, Livingston avoided releasing many details about the project outside of her small circle of producers and collaborators.

Although there had been no agreement to do so, the producers planned to distribute approximately $55,000 (1/5 of the sale price of the film to Miramax) among 13 of the participants. While Dorian Corey and Willi Ninja were very happy to be paid for a film they'd understood was an unpaid work of nonfiction, several other people in the film retained an attorney and planned to sue for a share of the film's profits in 1991, but when their attorney saw they had all signed standard model releases generated by WNYC Television, they did not sue and accepted payment. Paris Dupree had planned to sue for $40 million.

Livingston herself has consistently downplayed the financial controversy in interviews and forums, pointing out that documentaries, then and now, are works of nonfiction and journalism, and do not pay their subjects, and that the principals were paid, as a matter of respect, at a time when this was not done, and received considerably more than they would otherwise have received if they had been actors in an independently-made drama feature.

Upon its release, the documentary received rave reviews from critics and won several awards including a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, a Berlin International Film Festival Teddy Bear, an audience award from the Toronto International Film Festival, a GLAAD Media Award, a Women in Film Crystal Award, a Best Documentary award from the Los Angeles, New York, and National Film Critics' Circles, and it also was named as one of 1991's best films by the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio, Time magazine, and others.

Paris Is Burning failed to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature that year, which added to a growing perception that certain subjects and treatments were excluded from consideration for Oscars. This led to changes on how documentaries are nominated for the Academy Awards.

More than two decades later, Paris Is Burning remains an organizing tool for gay and trans youth; a way for scholars and students to examine issues of race, class, and gender; a way for younger ball participants to meet their ancestors; and a portrait of several remarkable Americans, most of whom have died since the film's production.

Critical reception

The film received overwhelmingly positive reviews from a number of mainstream and independent presses, remarkable at that time for a film on LGBT topics. Terrence Rafferty of The New Yorker said the film was "“a beautiful piece of work—lively, intelligent, exploratory …. Everything about ‘Paris Is Burning’ signifies so blatantly and so promiscuously that our formulations – our neatly paired theses and antitheses – multiply faster than we can keep track of them. What’s wonderful about the picture is that Livingston is smart enough not to reduce her subjects to the sum of their possible meanings…" Filmmaker Michelle Parkerson, writing for The Black Film Review, called the film "a politically astute, historically important document of our precarious times,” Essex Hemphill, the poet well-known for his role in Marlon Riggs’s classic film Tongues Untied, reviewed the film for the Guardian, celebrating how the documentary created a forum for the people in it to speak in their own voices, and writing: “Houses of silk and gabardine are built. Houses of dream and fantasy. Houses that bear the names of their legendary founders…Houses rise and fall. Legends come and go. To pose is to reach for power while simultaneously holding real powerlessness at bay."

Writing for Z Magazine, feminist writer bell hooks criticized the film for depicting the ritual of the balls as a spectacle to "pleasure" white spectators. Other authors such as Judith Butler and Phillip Harper have focused on the drag queens' desire to perform and present "realness". Realness can be described as the ability to appropriate an authentic gender expression. When performing under certain categories at the ball, such as school girl or executive, the queens are rewarded for appearing as close to the "real thing" as possible. A main goal amongst the contestants is to perform conventional gender roles while at the same time trying to challenge them.

hooks also questions the political efficacy of the drag balls themselves, citing her own experiments with drag, and suggesting that the balls themselves lack political, artistic, and social significance. hooks criticizes the production and questions gay men performing drag, suggesting that it is inherently misogynistic and degrading towards women. Butler responds to hooks's previous opinion that drag is misogynistic, stating in her book, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex":

The problem with the analysis of drag as only misogyny is, of course, that it figures male-to-female transsexuality, cross-dressing, and drag as male homosexual activities — which they are not always — and it further diagnoses male homosexuality as rooted in misogyny.

Both hooks and Harper criticize the filmmaker, Jennie Livingston, who is white, Jewish, gender-nonconforming, and queer, for remaining visibly absent from the film. Although the viewers are able to hear Livingston a few times during the production, the director's physical absence while orchestrating the viewer's perspective, creates what hooks calls an "Imperial Oversee(r)".

In the years following the film's release, people have continued to speak and write about Paris Is Burning. In 2013, UC Irvine scholar Lucas Hilderbrand wrote a history of the film, a book detailing its production, reception, and influence, Paris Is Burning, A Queer Film Classic (Arsenal Pulp Press). In 2017, New York Times writer Wesley Morris, in a print-only section for children for The New York Times, wrote "12 Films to See Before You Turn 13." The piece recommended kids see films like Princess Mononoke, The Wiz, and Do the Right Thing. About Paris Is Burning, Morris says "seeing [Livingston's] documentary as soon as possible means you can spend the rest of your life having its sense of humanity amuse, surprise, and devastate you, over and over."


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