Twenty-five years after
its initial release, “Paris Is Burning” still retains its power and beauty.
Director Jennie Livingston’s landmark documentary will be screened on January
17 at 9:15 pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the New York
Jewish Film Festival.
Set in 1987 New
York, the film opens with images of the Twin Towers at night and the Times
Square zipper. An interviewee explains that gay black men will have a “hard
fucking time,” so one has to be strong. But that does not mean that gay black
men in Harlem cannot have fun. As the subjects in “Paris Is Burning” vividly
illustrate, the balls they attend provide them a satisfying way for them to
express themselves. As Pepper Labeija, the “legendary mother of the House of
Labeija” sashays into a ball dressed in a fabulous outfit, the joys and cheers
of the crowd are infectious.
The film shows
how the Ball circuit allows these minority gay and transgender participants a
safe place where they can find comfort and community (even when things get
tough in the competitions). The subjects in the film define the terms they use
to communicate, from “reading” to “shade” to “voguing,” as well as the
categories that are part of the competitions, such as “executive realness.”
But what the Balls
really represent is an opportunity for these working and middle-class African
American and Latino men—many of whom come from broken
homes, and some of whom live on the streets—to “live
the fantasy” of being rich and belonging.
The point, as
one interviewee explains, is that while LGBT minorities have had to “monitor”
how they look and act, the idea of being able to “blend” is “realness.” The balls
provide these individuals the chance to “look like their straight
counterparts,” and Livingston deftly shows this by juxtaposing white upper
class folks with the drag queens trying to emulate them.
In the two and a
half decades since the film was first released, the socio-economic and racial
(in)equality has not necessarily changed significantly, even with Obama in the
White House. As one interviewee acknowledges, African Americans have always had
to do “behavior modification.” For them, walking the runway at a ball—as
an “executive” or as “Town and Country”—is the only
way to capture the look and/or dress of the white elite.
“Paris Is Burning” also addresses issues of
queer youth being rejected by their families, and often having to eke out life
on the streets. As subjects ranging from Octavia Saint Laurent or Venus
Extravaganza talk about their dreams for marriage, money, or a sex change,
their desires are contrasted with the reality check offered by Dorian Corey, an
older, more realistic drag queen, who understands and accepts the limits of
fame and leaving a mark on the world.
“Paris Is Burning” left a mark on practically
everyone who saw it back in 1990. It remains as exciting today as it did then.
For anyone who has not seen this remarkable film should see it now on the big
“Paris Is Burning” will be shown
Saturday, January 17 at 9:15 pm at the Walter Reade Theater. Jennie Livingston will introduce the screening. For tickets and additional information, click here.