Originally released in 1991, Paris is Burning returns to screens in a 4K restoration at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (June 17 – July 4) and in select Cineplex screens. Shot over 7 years, Jennie Livingston’s documentary deep dive into 1980’s Harlem drag ball culture is a landmark work. The film is an intimate portrait of the city’s African American and Latinx gay and trans community that fiercely forged crucial ties from within in order to survive life on the margins. It’s uplifting, heartbreaking and unforgettable.
In this verité gem, Livingston’s roving camera is uncannily unobtrusive. Paris is Burning begins outside a ball, lingering in the rundown but vibrant street scene until a glamorously dressed drag queen sashays by and sweeps us inside. Personal stories are told in voice over, private memories of rejection and loss, as onscreen individuals build a portrait of community solidarity. Then a friendly face proudly proclaims that when you go inside the ball “you feel right” and off we go.
Glorious shots of the most captivating outfits and performances are mingled throughout Paris is Burning with the most candid of interviews. The ball circuit is a vital component in the survival of the larger subculture. It is the very thing for which each participant lives. Rejected by families, living in poverty, a chance to strut down the catwalk means everything. In this context, ball culture “is about making sure we uplift each other.” It is soon apparent that beneath these desires pulses the very real human need for community.
Still relevant today, Paris is Burning offers a clear-sighted glimpse into a history that informs our mainstream culture now. Ball culture is an acknowledged influence on current TV shows ‘Pose’ and ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’ as well as Madonna’s ‘Vogue’, and new audiences will discover where terms like “voguing” and “throwing shade” originated.
The film is an essential reminder of how the grand excesses of that decade clashed with the realities of a people forced to live underground. Looking to Hollywood and the lives of the rich and famous, these indefatigable souls dared to dream big, fantasizing about their own lives of opulence.
The great divide is ever present in Paris is Burning, as participants in the ball culture struggle to create lavish outfits for each striking performance, all the while fending off the very real pangs of starvation. With a white woman documenting this African American and Latinx gay and transgender scene, the restoration of the film will undoubtedly rekindle the debate around voyeurism and cultural appropriation that erupted upon its original release. But it’s a discussion that is still necessary today.
In Paris is Burning we are privy to the core resilience of a group of people who refuse to accept rejection, who band together to fight poverty, homophobia and transphobia, homelessness and the very real fear of the AIDS crisis. We learn of chosen family structures, the various ‘fashion houses’ that are central to each life as well: “Ball culture is family culture.”
Paris is Burning succeeds by asking the profiled individuals to speak for themselves. The candour with which each individual shares their most innermost dreams is breathtaking. Featuring legendary voguers, drag queens, and trans women (including Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, and Venus Xtravaganza), the film becomes a shared expression of love and acceptance. Paris is Burning is a bracing portrait of these fighters and dreamers, of a resolute people fighting mainstream rejection by creating a world for themselves. A world that despite the vast imbalances of that era has survived, at least in part, to influence our mainstream culture today.