Paris Is Burning is a 1990 American documentary film directed by Jennie Livingston. Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, it chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities involved in it. Many members of the ball culture community consider Paris Is Burning to be an invaluable documentary of the end of the “Golden Age” of New York City drag balls, as well as a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America.
The film explores the elaborately-structured Ball competitions in which contestants, adhering to a very specific category or theme, must “walk” (much like a fashion model’s runway) and subsequently be judged on criteria including the “realness” of their drag, the beauty of their clothing and their dancing ability.
Most of the film alternates between footage of balls and interviews with prominent members of the scene, including Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Angie Xtravaganza, and Willi Ninja. Many of the contestants vying for trophies are representatives of “Houses" (in the fashion sense, such as "House of Chanel") that serve as intentional families, social groups, and performance teams. Houses and ball contestants who consistently won in their walks eventually earned a “legendary” status.
The film depicts people with different gender identities or communities and their different forms of expression. It also explores how its subjects dealt with the adversity of racism, homophobia, AIDS and poverty. For example, some, likeVenus Xtravaganza became sex workers, some shoplift clothing, and some were thrown out of their homes by homophobic parents. One was saving money for sex reassignment surgery. Yet what makes this film significant is its approach. According to Livingston and according to the reviewers and movie-goers who viewed the film, this documentary is a multi-leveled exploration of a subculture in African American and Latino cultures that proves to be a microcosm of society, which was an underappreciated and arguably underground world that many Americans were unfamiliar with. hrough candid one-on-one interviews the film offers insight into the lives and struggles of its subjects and the strength, pride, and humor they maintain to survive in a “rich, white world.”
Drag is presented as a complex performance of gender, class, and race, in which one can express one’s identity, desires and aspirations along many dimensions. The African-American and Latino community depicted in the film includes a diverse range of identities and gender presentations, from gay men to butch queens to transgender women.
The film also documents the origins of “voguing”, a dance style in which competing ball-walkers freeze and “pose” in glamorous positions (as if being photographed for the cover of Vogue). Pop star Malcolm McLaren (with Mark Moore of S’Express and William Orbit) would, two years before Paris Is Burning was completed, bring the phenomenon to the mainstream with his song “Deep in Vogue”, which sampled the movie and directly referenced many of the stars of Paris Is Burning including Pepper LaBeija and featured dancers from the film, including Willi Ninja. The single went to #1 in the US Billboard Dance Chart. One year after this, Madonnareleased her number one song “Vogue”, bringing further attention to the dancing style.