It is a shame that this documentary has been out for three decades and this is the first time I’ve seen it. I could have used it when (and where) I grew up, because any idea I had of people struggling because they were different was a tainted by a culture that they should just stop being different. I have learned since how wrong that was, how unkind, how dangerous, how absolutely annihilating.
Paris Is Burning would have presented me with a courageous, self-defining gay and transexual black and hispanic community in New York, embracing each other in a world that that didn’t (and doesn’t) accept so much about them. I don’t know how I would have responded back in 1990, but I wish for anything that could have led me to stand up and recognize and love and be loved by people we are often persuaded to, at least, ignore. This is an important film. I’m glad it’s now a part of my life. I’d like to quote, already, an essay by Michelle Parkerson that is included in the new release from The Criterion Collection:
[The] resilience of Black and Latinx queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming people — their ability to persist in self-affirmation, in the face of forces, both personal and impersonal, that are attempting to deny their very humanity — is the thematic core of Paris Is Burning, and it remains key to its enduring appeal.
I love how directly Parkerson hits the nail on the head: this is a film that shows resilience and courage and pure strength in the face of so many negative forces.
I’ve expressed a lot of praise for Paris Is Burning without even introducing the film. That’s just how I felt I should start this post. But let me also do what I can to introduce the film. This documentary was Jennie Livingston’s first. In the late 1980s she filmed the ball culture, which is not something I knew anything about. Ball culture (or subculture) has, if my online sources are correct, been around since the 1920s. These balls are gatherings where attendees compete in what on the surface looks to be runway shows, only there is so much more going on than just modeling (though I’m sure that’s a fun part as well).
There are various categories, some explored in the film. There are ones you might expect that are based primarily on ostentatious dress. But there were others that really surprised me, such as “realness” where one dresses up to look as much like a straight man or woman as one can. Then one walks and performs in that assumed identity and is judged on how well that person would fit in.
Such categories surprised me because they sound contrary to a gathering meant to embrace difference, but as I watched it started to make some sense. This gathering is meant to allow individuals to not only escape from the predominant culture outside but also parody it or stand up to it. As one of the film’s central subjects, Dorian Corey, says:
In a ballroom, you can be anything you want. You’re not really an executive, but you’re looking like an executive. And therefore you’re showing the straight world that I can be an executive. If I had the opportunity, I could be one. Because I can look like one.
This is tremendously insightful, and as a statement its nuances and criticisms are applicable to us all.
Another aspect of the ball culture that I found inspirational is the family structure. Since so many of the individuals who find their way to this subculture have been ostracized from their own families, they are adopted by “houses” and given the house name as a new last name. In the film, for example, we follow around members of the House of Xtravaganza, LeBeija, or St. Laurent, among others. We meet some of the mothers and some of the children.
Sadly, so many of the people we meet in the film are no longer with us. Several died shortly after the documentary was first released. It’s a tragic story, as well as an inspiration and humane one. It’s also wonderful that on this Criterion release we have a conversation between Jennie Livingston, Freddie Pendavis, and Sol Pendavis, who are still living.
This does lead to what is probably the film’s biggest criticism: it (and, it is often noted, Livingston) opened the door on a culture and several individuals who struggled mightily with racism, homophobia, poverty, addiction, AIDs, violence, and it has popularized much of their slang, yet it’s clear most of them didn’t benefit from this exposure. The world (and now particularly Instagram, it seems) has taken what it wants of the culture and does so without even knowing where it comes from (I didn’t know so many popular terms came from the ballroom scene), and certainly without giving much space for this courageous community that was built in order to be unique, to stand-out, to be their own in a world where so much is taken from them.
Though I understand this baggage is hard to get out from under, I’m glad Paris Is Burning exists, and I’m glad to have that door opened. This will continue to be an important film in my life.