Paris is Burning (1990)
Director: Jennie Livingston
Stars: Brooke Extravaganza, Andre Christian, Dorian Corey and many more
Available on Netflix
Released in 1990, the documentary Paris is Burning offers a brief yet somehow comprehensive look into the “ball” scene in New York as it existed in the 80’s. “Balls” were events organized by black gay men, and were basically fashion shows for drag queens, though they came to represent so much more. Having been made “legendary” by its constant reference on Rupaul’s Drag Race, it is easy to discount the movie as an ornament of kitsch, but to do so discounts the film’s value as an emotionally devastating portrait of courage. Throughout its all-too-brief runtime (71 minutes), Paris offers portraits of both young and aging gay black men who, spurned by a society that shuns them, have found solace by coming together and creating a culture all their own. This culture, though it may not shield many of these figures from the harsh realities of modern life, shows that everyone, regardless of whether mainstream society can see them or not, can find a way to be everything they want to be.
Earlier in this review’s opening paragraph, I put quotation marks around the word “legendary” because it is one of a variety of terms used frequently in this culture’s special vernacular, and it is meant to signify a level of experience and success in the “ball” circuit. Early in the film, the “legendary” “mother” of the “house” of Labeija explains the evolution of the New York “ball” scene from a network of drag queen parties into a more-or-less organized competitive circuit, where contestants are judged on everything from fashion and makeup to more subjective determiners like poise and talent. All of the description of the scene is really just the canvas on which compelling characters are drawn and the audience is let in on the fun of it all. In one of the most famous and hilarious scenes in the movie, “legendary” “mother” of the “house” of Corey describes the practice of “reading,” perfectly elucidating the way insults delivered are made more effective through the subtleties of performance than the particulars of an insult.
This “mother,” Dorian Corey, is one of the more compelling individuals in the film, constantly powdering his face and speaking in the fatigued voice of a disappointed headmaster. In his (or her, if you prefer, as I feel that most of the movie’s interviewees would accept either pronoun) tired eyes, we see his knowledge of the hardships that his “children” are sure to face. These drag queens are forced to join groups or “houses” because many of their families have disowned them, and their most important and long-lasting relationships are now with the other members of their “house,” especially their “mother.” The fact that pervades every frame of Paris is Burning is that for these drag queens, life is very hard. The harsh realities of life for these “children” is most exemplified in the frame of Venus Extravaganza, the tiny, lithe and gorgeously cute little 23-year old who is the first to describe his own method of making money, which he calls “hustling” but is in reality thinly disguised prostitution.
Venus is retroactively the movie’s most chilling character, as he was murdered (presumably by a john) two years prior to its release. The “ball” circuit of Paris is Burning is so important to all its participants precisely because the realities of their lives are so dark, and to escape their own circumstances for a few hours by dressing up and performing in a showcase can seem like the most important thing in their lives. I consider the drag queens of this terrific little movie heroes, because they are so able to compartmentalize lives of brutal strife, that when they step out on the pageant stage, they can be superstars of the highest order. As Dorian Corey puts it at the conclusion of the movie, rolling his eyes and sneaking a knowing smirk across his lips, “If you can shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.” This concluding sentiment perfectly illustrates the way that glory in the “ball” scene can be thrilling and exhilarating, but it will not free you from life’s cruel circumstance.