“Opulence. O, P, U, L, E, N, C, E, opulence. You own everything. Everything is yours!”
Before The Crying Game and Transamerica, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, and Scissor Sisters’ “Let’s Have a Kiki,” there was Paris Is Burning. I first saw it at a screening on my college campus, I think, when it was fairly new—I remember a double feature with Madonna’s Truth or Dare, so it had to be summer or fall 1991. I’ve since seen it countless times. It’s one of the films I quote most. I love it, even as it turns 25 years old. It is, in two words, fucking fabulous!
Shot in 1987 with a short check in three years later, Paris Is Burning is ostensibly a documentary about the Harlem nightlife ball culture (pronounced “boo-wall” by most here). The film takes its name from one said ball, a rather clandestine affair held in a shabby party hall somewhere near Lexington/125. A world unto itself, ball culture was loaded with costumes, wild dancing, attitude, hierarchy, and tons of rules. There was blood, sweat, tears, and fighting—but there was also community and (for some) glory. As one subject, Willie Ninja, informs us, the balls may have been long and drawn out, but they were never boring. Amen! This is clear.
Much to her credit, director Jennie Livingston goes—excuse how this sounds—beyond the balls, getting into the daily challenges not only gay men and drag queens faced, but also actual bona fide transgender women. This was probably the first exposure I had to that. I mean, being gay in the Reagan Era was bad enough: if you weren’t destined to live a long and lonely life in the closet, you were going to get AIDS. Either way, the only thing straight about you was your road to hell. Transgender was…something else altogether. America was not ready for it when Paris is Burning came out, which makes it all the more remarkable.
Paris Is Burning is a big middle finger to all that thinking. While not everyone subscribed to that view, Paris Is Burning was the first film to show a lifestyle like this in a positive light. It was effective; it showed how fun and liberating it could be to walk a ball, fake tits or not. Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side. Damned fun! No wonder Madonna co-opted vogueing and snagged two Xtravaganzas for her tour.
Although there are undertones of sadness throughout, every person in this film is a hero. They were courageous simply living their lives how they did, when they did. The key was a mix of self confidence and major guts. Dorian Corey gave me a crash course on reading and shade. Pepper LaBeija showed me that living the good life takes more than money. Venus Xtravaganza showed me that life is a negotiation. Whatever category you choose, you better work it!
Sadly, the era and the players of Paris Is Burning are long gone, but their spirit doesn’t just live on—it thrives. Paris Is Burning and its subjects are legendary.
Side note: everything has its dark side. This is a perfect example: http://dangerousminds.net/comments/dorian_corey_the_drag_queen_had_a_mummy_in_her_closet
In 2016, the United States Library of Congress deemed Paris Is Burning “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
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