Paris is Burning
Director: Jennie Livingston
Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning”, is a pillar of queer cinema that had managed to evade me until just recently. In her sole documentary outing to this day, Jennie explores Harlem’s 1980’s queer scene, focusing on the drag balls. Initially held exclusively for traditional drag queens, by the time of filming, they had expanded to include all people of color in Harlem’s queer community. By focusing on both the balls as well as the stars who imbued the culture, she paints a story of life during that time for these otherwise abandoned people.
The stories of balls’ participants differentiate throughout the documentary varying from a strictly educational fare to a humanizing story of a previously hidden culture. The elder, yet still elegant, drag queen Dorian Corey acts as tour guide. Having performed in balls in their infancy when her brand of drag was the only brand, she had seen them evolve into the phenomenon that they had become. She imparts how they expanded from purely showcasing feminine impersonation to opening their doors to the entire queer community. They understood that everyone had a persona worth presenting and celebrating.
The expansion of drag culture to encompass individual expansions of all kinds is exemplified as Livingston follows Malcolm McLaren a master ball competitor in the category of his own invention: voguing. It’s in this section that “Paris is Burning” veers deepest into a more traditional documentary approach. Malcom and his dance craze are studied, and the origins of the pop culture phenomena are uncovered. While interesting, and important to uncover these counter cultural roots, the deviation from the personal in this section feels a disservice to the goals of the rest of the film.
The introduction of the houses and house mothers, midway through the documentary, acts as a foil for the voguing section. In these moments, the audience is both educated of the familial groups the castoffs create and presented with an in intimate view into the lives of the house mothers. Dorian Corey, a mother of House of Corey herself, describes the purpose of the houses at which point the film directs it’s primary focus to House Xtravaganza.
Dorian’s introduction serves as the necessary background for “Paris is Burning”’s stars to shine. Angie Xtravaganza, mother of House Xtravaganza, and her children are a returned to throughout the bulk of the film. Instead of explaining the relationship between house mother and children, their actual relationships are captured. Simply watching the film, allows the viewer to meet the fabricated family, and empathize with their plight. Most having been exiled from their blood family, the house members rely on each other. The houses provide sanctuary from the rampant homophobia and transphobia waiting for them outside.
Standout Xtravaganza star Venus serves as the emotional pillar of the film, outshining the rest of her siblings. Despite existing in a time unaccepting of her identity, her comfort in herself is an inspiration. She dreams of becoming a “spoiled, rich, white girl living in the suburbs” radiates naivety and hope. Her innocence stays pure even as her actions don’t. She shoplifts and partakes in sex worker to save money for her eventual gender confirmation surgery.
Before the documentary finishes filming however, Venus was strangled to death by a client, presumably distraught by Venus’s transgender identity. As a trans woman myself, I broke into tears over Venus’s death. Unable to watch the last twenty minutes until much later, I attempted to process what I saw. The surrounding presence of transphobia was not hidden from the film, so the potential existed, but Venus was too real to accept her death. I felt I lost a friend I had only met an hour before.
Personal anger and distress aside, Jennie Livingston was successful in the films goal, and including the details of Venus’s death were and important part of that. She brings eyes to the Harlem ball scene, and introduces it’s wonderful participates, but the juxtaposition of hatred just outside the ballroom halls is what illuminates the most important purpose of the balls. They served as a place where these personas could exist in safety since the outside world wouldn’t allow it. Only through the decision to focus on the people, rather than the events themselves, was the emotional connection created to drive in the importance. This understanding is why “Paris is Burning” holds up as a queer classic. It’s more than a documentary of a fad, but a story of people’s lives.