How Paris is Burning became a touchstone of queer cinema

Ahead of its screening at Edinburgh International Film Festival, we consider the enduring importance of Jennie Livingston's documentary on New York’s 80s drag subculture, Paris Is Burning

Feature by Katie Goh | 18 Jun 2018
  • Paris is Burning

Cast your eyes down any university LGBTQ+ society’s list of film screenings and you’ll find Paris is Burning. First screened at the Toronto Film Festival in 1990 and given general distribution in 1991, Jennie Livingston’s documentary about New York’s 80s drag subculture is a milestone in queer cinema.

Paris is Burning presents a portrait of Harlem’s drag ballroom scene – evenings when predominately African American and Hispanic gay men, transgender women, and drag queens would compete against each other in runway battles and vogue dance-offs. While drag has been prolific in American queer culture since at least the 20s, for many viewers, Paris is Burning was the first glimpse into the underground subculture of drag.

In the documentary, we’re introduced to a host of colourful characters, largely divided into ‘Houses’ (Extravaganza, LaBeija), each with its own ‘mother’ who acts as an overseer. These Houses act as surrogate families for a community rejected by their own biological families and marginalised by society during the AIDS crisis. The Houses come together to compete at balls in themed drag competitions – “military,” “schoolboy/girl realness,” “executive realness.” While the ball-attendees are there to celebrate and party, they’re also there in serious competition. At one point, there’s a shouting match between a judge and a contestant over a coat that appears to be a woman’s garment. “Like in the Olympics when the Russian judge brought up the fact that an American coach stepped onto the floor and that was a disqualification,” explains an interviewee, “…just as picky as a ball.”

Paris is Burning was designed to present and explain the queer subculture of drag and balls to a largely oblivious cis and hetero audience. Title cards with key drag terms – "shade", "realness", "mother", "voguing" – are shown and then explained. In the documentary’s most quoted line, one of the mothers, Dorian Corey, defines shade: “I don’t tell you you’re ugly but I don’t have to tell you because you know you’re ugly – and that’s shade.” Now popularised by Ru Paul’s Drag Race and by white heterosexual television, such as Broad City and Real Housewives, slang like “yas kween,” “shade,” “fierce” originates as the language of drag balls.

The appropriation of queer terminology by predominately white, straight women in recent years has been controversial, as was Paris is Burning when it was released. Its director, Jennie Livingston – a white middle-class lesbian – has been accused of voyeurism and of exploiting the ball subculture. Feminist critic bell hooks was particularly critical of Livingston’s film, writing that: “Livingston approaches her subject matter as an outsider looking in […] [assuming] a privileged location of 'innocence.' She is represented both in interviews and reviews as the tender-hearted, mild-mannered, virtuous white woman daring to venture into a contemporary 'heart of darkness' to bring back knowledge of the natives.”

As well as the argument that Paris is Burning occupies an imperialist gaze, the documentary is also controversial in its legacy. Paris is Burning was an unexpected financial success, grossing $4 million against a budget of $500,000. Several of the interviewees felt that they were missing out on the wealth generated by the film and sought compensation. The film’s producers decided to divide $55,000 among 13 interviewees. Speaking to the New York Times, Dorian Corey reported that “oh yes, to this day a lot of the girls hate Miss Jennie, but that’s just greed.”

The issue of money becomes more controversial in that Paris is Burning has become an in memoriam. Nearly all of its participants are dead now. At the end of the documentary, there is a chilling reminder of the high rates of violence against transgender people, when it is revealed that one interviewee, Venus Xtravaganza, was murdered at the age of 23 during the documentary’s filming. Few of the participants were able to enjoy any share of the $55,000.

In retrospect, Paris is Burning is simultaneously dated and relevant. The documentary is very much a time capsule of a particular moment in drag subculture that doesn’t exist in the same way anymore. It’s also dated in its representation of queerness. Livingston doesn’t spend time differentiating between transgender women, gay men, and drag queens and the result is a messy generalisation of homogeneous identity. But despite being a controversial product of its time, what Paris is Burning still offers is a gateway into a community.

There’s a reason why the documentary has become an iconic piece of queer cinema and why it’s still screened by university LGBTQ+ societies nearly 30 years on. The film is a portrait of a thriving, celebratory community but unlike Drag Race, Paris is Burning isn’t all glamour. Drag isn’t just fantasy, it’s survival. As Dorian Corey tells us, “Black people have a hard time getting anywhere and those that do are usually straight. In a ballroom you can be anything you want.”

Paris Is Burning screens as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 26 Jun. For tickets, click here

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