I got a copy of Paris is Burning 3 years ago, started watching it but stopped after the first five minutes. I finally resumed it a few days ago and completed it. Why did it take me so long to watch an hour long movie? I guess it was the initial depressing start, seeing those young kids, their stories of being kicked out of their homes, some living in poverty, having to survive on the streets literally and going to those balls to experience another life, be somebody even if only for a few minutes. It’s not like it was a film penned by some writer: this was real life and I’m glad I went back and completed it.
Paris Is Burning a documentary filmed in the 1980s by Jennie Livingston (though released in 1990) that detailed the experiences of several participants of the underground balls in New York at a time that no one knew these balls existed. It explored a lot of different issues affecting LGBT such as racism, AIDS and homophobia (issues that are still live and kicking today). It was very real, nothing was prettied up for the public (such as ‘no-holds-barred’ discussions about ‘mopping’ and prostitution). There were a lot of scenes from the actual balls showing the different categories, types of “runway walks”, the concept of “houses” that battled for trophies, and the preoccupation of participants with glamour and ‘realness’ (how much you looked the part you were trying to play). It was a critical and commercial success though there were some critics implied that the movie had racist leanings. A few of the paricipants wanted to sue afterwards (one sought a settlement of $40 million).
Besides Willi Ninja who became a mainstream success, most of the characters struggled to make it even after the movie was completed though they continued to feature in other documentaries made around that time. A lot of the participants died relatively young, many of the deaths AIDS-related.
As what it set out to do, a glimpse into the life of some members of the LGBTQ whose rich and interesting lives would probably not have been documented, PIB did an excellent job. The legacy of this film lives on in current LGBT slang and culture. Vogueing, a dance move prominently showcased in the film was used in many music videos at the time such as the Malcolm McLaren video below and was the subject of the Madonna song ‘Vogue’. The main performers were lively and unforgettable – the witty Pepper LaBeija, the legendary (though jaded) Dorian Corey, the exquisitely beautiful Octavia, the sweet and caring Angie Xtravaganza, the hilarious Freddie Pendavis, the tragic Venus Xtravaganza and the very talented Willi Ninja. Even though I’m not a huge fan of the dance move, his work was truly beauty in motion. All through the movie there was this air of togetherness, of family, even with all the cat-fighting and shadiness. These guys, for the most part, cared about one another, helped each other when they were in trouble (the leaders of the houses were not called “house mothers” for nothing).
In a way, PIB reminds me of what being gay still is where I live: a world behind the regular world where people pretend in one aspect of their lives and live the way the want in the other albeit with a greater emphasis on making sure both worlds never meet. Everyday we get dressed for work and play the part of the regular guys, the model tax-paying heterosexual citizens (complete with wives and kids) and when the sun goes down, we go to the bars, clubs and some other places to become the people we truly wish we could be everyday.
I recently saw a video of Freddie Pendavis being interviewed and he mentioned that TWO THIRDS of the filmed footage wasn’t actually used in the movie. I imagine those clips would be fun to watch.
More on the Film:
“Paris is Burning” on Wikipedia