30 Years Later, PARIS IS BURNING Resonates More than Ever

Pride month is inexorably different this year. This isn’t just pride month; it’s a pride month when many are struggling to find ways to celebrate, given the coronavirus and the shunning of large social gatherings; it’s the pride month when the supreme court made the landmark decision that individuals can’t be fired on the basis of their gender or sexuality. The biggest change, however, is that this pride month is happening the same time as black lives matter protests sweep the nation. Thousands of people have taken to the streets demanding changes in policing and the general treatment of black lives. Not only is there this focus on black lives, but also on black trans lives, black queer lives, black non-binary lives. Recently, a group of protestors seized control of part of the city of Seattle, renaming it the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (formerly the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone). It’s a radical area of protest and dissent, and a place to spread new ideas through performance and artwork. One of those pieces of art happened to be the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, which was screened in the zone about a week ago. Given the significance the film has as both a testimony of queer life and black life, now seems like a perfect time to go back and reflect on this powerful statement of a film.

The film centers around the New York City drag life, specifically the drag “balls” that routinely occur. The balls serve as both a competition where people come to earn rewards and exhibit their skills in dancing and costume design, and also as a safe haven for the ball-goers, many of whom are black or latinx, providing them with a place to express themselves to their fullest. The documentary centers around multiple ball-goers, some of whom identify as transgender, gay, or simply enjoy drag, and documents their lives inside and outside the balls. We learn firsthand that many of these people have been ostracized for being themselves, and struggle with their identities within a society that seemingly hates them at every turn. Many of them seek fame and fortune as a way to “make up” for their mistreatment. The ball-goers that serve as subjects of this documentary often provide unique and harrowing testimonies to their own experiences. Some, such as Dorian Corey, have become crestfallen with age and seemingly resigned to their lives. Others, such as Brooke Xtravaganza, find happiness for themselves, which in Brooke’s case comes after receiving the gender reassignment surgery she’d been desperately yearning for. Some, such as Venus Xtravaganza, unfortunately fail to live in a world that hates them, as Venus is tragically killed before the end of the film while working as a sex worker. Every individual story is told with a seeming love and compassion for these ball-goers, and makes for a powerful documentation of their lives.

Upon its release Paris is Burning was met with critical acclaim for its intimate storytelling and documentation of a lifestyle that (at the time) was foreign to many people. In many ways the film was ahead of its time, as the issues outlined about trans and queer rights were hardly talked about in the early 1990s. In addition to bringing these people’s lives and struggles to attention the film also raises questions about the nature of gender itself through performance. To some however, the movie is a deceptively regressive piece. Some felt that the film’s director Jennie Livingston, an ivy-league educated white lesbian woman, is too detached and privileged to truly give her subjects justice, resulting in a film that ultimately caters to a white audience. Others have accused her of cultural appropriation, effectively stealing the experiences of others less fortunate and profiting off of them.

These criticisms should be taken into consideration. It is without question that director Livingston benefited from a deal of privilege in the production of the film, and it’s possible that her film suffers from it. That doesn’t detract the power of the film though. Whatever bias and privilege Livingston may have had, her film-making and ability to chronicle her subjects’ lives still shine, making for an incredibly insightful and effective watch. Those fighting for social justice or even those looking to broaden their horizons would be well-advised to watch this film if they have the option, they might come away from it with a new level of understanding of the plights and lives of countless numbers of people.