Paris Is Burning (1991)

Paris Is Burning (1991)

A fabulous and heartbreaking account of the 1980s drag scene in New York

The Very Best

9.3

Movie

United Kingdom, United States of America
English
Documentary
1991
FEMALE DIRECTOR, JENNIE LIVINGSTON
Dorian Corey, Octavia St. Laurent, Pepper LaBeija
78 min

TLDR

Everything you need to know about drag and ball history is in this seminal documentary.

What it's about

A look at 1980s New York ballroom culture through the eyes of prominent drag mothers and their respective “houses.”

The take

Though the drag scene is alive and well today, Paris is Burning is an important reminder that it didn’t always used to be that way. Over the course of seven years, Director Jennie Livingston leads us underneath the crime-ridden streets of 80s New York, where a glittery drag subculture is flourishing, despite all odds. Leading the community are the so-called mothers, the best performers and most fashionable of them all, tasked with inspiring and caring for newcomers. Nevermind that they’re shunned by society and suffocated (sometimes literally) by hateful homophobes and racists; when there is a ball, all that matters is that they strut, dance, and put on the best damn show of their lives. What they do is art, and Livingston makes sure to exalt the craft and pride that goes into it. At the same time, intimate interviews with iconic queens like Pepper LaBeija and Willi Ninja reveal the heartbreaking nature of the community. Most, if not all, have endured some form of abuse, and many risk their lives to earn a decent living. But again, Livingston refuses to reduce them to pure tragedy; she gets them to share their wonderfully big dreams, then gets us to hope along with them that they might just come true.

What stands out

The inventiveness of the culture! It’s important to remember that what some people (incorrectly) label as Gen Z slang, like “shade” “gag” “mother” and “read,” actually originated in the Black and Latino-led ballroom scene. We’d all do well to credit them more often instead of using, and at times appropriating, the language so loosely.

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