MiniReview: "Paris Is Burning" (film)

Poster for one of the balls organized by the House of Dupree, presided over by the "mother" of the Dupree "family," Paris Dupree.  

Oh, c’est formidable! We haven’t reviewed enough films about Paris. French kissing by the Seine, sucking dick in the Bois de Bou—

No, no, calm down, this isn’t about Paris!


What is it, then?

It’s an American documentary from 1990 by Jennie Livingston, about the “ballroom” scene in New York City—soirées attended by underprivileged gay and trans folk, where they would have drag competitions and such.


Oh. Well … New York’s okay, I guess. But why’s it called Paris Is Burning?

One of the balls was called the Paris Is Burning Ball. And of course, Paris is the city of fashion, and the balls rather turned the whole notion of fashion on its head, with these struggling Black and Latino drag queens doing their best to appear as glamorous runway stars despite their limited budgets.


When was this?

In the 1980s. I must say, this documentary makes that decade look absolutely ghastly, with the conspicuous consumption that existed side by side with miserable poverty—made worse, of course, by the fact that a lot of these young trans and queer people had been rejected by their families.


Maybe things haven’t changed as much as we’d like to think they have.

Actually, yeah, it sounds eerily like 2021, doesn’t it (minus the toxicity of social media)? But for all the timelessness of some of the themes, this documentary does capture a very particular time and place. One of the ball-goers says that going to a ball is like going through the looking glass, which is a perfect description. What the participants in the balls achieved, collectively, was really a form of theatre holding a distorting mirror up to the society outside. I loved the fact that one of the categories in which ballgoers competed was “Realness,” which is to say, trying to hide your queerness so that you would blend in out on the streets. I think this notion of “normality” as a performance will resonate with most queer folk, and it’s delicious to see it enacted with such passion and energy and creativity.


It sounds as if you really liked this.

It’s a fascinating documentary, with a lot to say about the plight of trans people, and the use of drag as an ironic weapon wielded against the horrors of heteronormative capitalist society. What’s sad, to me, is that the people participating in the balls mostly seem to be aspiring to partake of the fruits of the mainstream society they satirize—wealth, celebrity, acclaim—but in fact they’re so much more interesting and beautiful than most of the people who have those things (some of whom are shown in the documentary as they walk the streets of NYC with their big hair, flashy suits, and clunky jewellery). In certain respects, I thought the documentary was every bit as much a critique of American capitalism as a study of a specific 1980s trans/queer subculture. But either way, it’s well worth seeing.



Two. This is certainly one of the best films I’ve seen about the culture of drag. It’s touching and inspiring. 

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