Paris Is Burning (1991): Jennie Livingston’s Docu about Sub-Culture of Gay Black and Hispanic

It’s hard to imagine a more outcast group in American society than black and Hispanic homosexuals. Jennie Livingston’s landmark documentary, Paris Is Burning, shows how this group, bound by common rejection, constructs a subculture that has its own norms, values and language. The film celebrates the vitality and resourcefulness of a group that is subcultural, i.e. part of the culture, without being countercultural, namely operating outside of and against dominant culture. Indeed, its denizens don’t wish to replace dominant culture, they long to become members of the society they imitate.

As a Jewish and openly lesbian filmmaker, Livingston aimed to raise consciousness in a film dictated by strong ideas about gender-defined behavior, homophobia, and racism. The movie was made to prove that sexual identity is a product of social construction and as such can be liberating or confining for people.

Upon getting a Yale degree in literature, Livingston became a photographer. Her earlier work dealt with racism, sexism and the media. Frustrated with the “silence” of photography, Livingston then determined to do something more overtly political. Paris Is Burning, her first film, fulfilled that wish. Like Barbara Kopple’s American Dream and other socially relevant documentaries, Paris Is Burning is the kind of work that reveals its author through the voices of her subjects.

Livingston was first exposed to voguing in 1985, when she observed a group at Washington Square Park in New York. She had just arrived in the city to study film at NYU. It soon became clear that there were deeper political messages in voguing than it suggested on the surface. Intrigued by the participants’ game-playing, Livingston began to attend balls, which challenged her conventional ideas about gender, race and class. The closer she got to know her “voyagers,” many of whom were adolescents, the more she realized how articulate and creative they were.

It took Livingston four years to make the film, whose final cost was around $450,000. In 1985, Livingston met Meg McLagan, a videomaker and anthropologist, who introduced her to independent filmmaking. Livingston sold her car and borrowed money to make a 5-minute fund-raising trailer. She then received two grants totaling $24,000 (from the New York State Council on the Arts and the Jerome Foundation), and further help from a TV producer. These grants were followed by an NEA grant, under Jesse Helms, just as he began to rant about Robert Mapplethorpe’s audacious photography. By 1987, Livingston had about 70 hours of footage from balls and interviews. She spent the next two years editing and cutting the film to a feature length. In 1989, the BBC came through with post-production funding to complete the project.

One of the most intriguing elements of Paris Is Burning is its revelation that style is the chief weapon used by transvestites and their entourages. Style is pervasive in speech, vocabulary, manner, dress and attitude. Style is a way of appearing to be “real,” a way of appearing to be something that one isn’t. “Paris Is Burning” is the name of one drag ball that Livingston decided to explore as an anthropologist. She conducted interviews with some of the more notorious–“legendary” as they describe themselves–self-styled queens. “I’ve been around now for two decades, reigning,” says Pepper Lebeija, one of the queens Livingtson studied. Pepper’s life revolves around the drag balls that have more to offer than simply the spectacle of men dressing up in women’s clothes.

Drag comes in all sizes, shapes and forms. The competition for prizes is fierce in categories that feature elaborate costumes. In the “Town and Country” Division, for example, contestants dress as upper-middle class men and women. Other categories include Executive Realness (Wall Street), Military, and Schoolboy/Schoolgirl.

Paris Is Burning is more than a record of spectacle. The interviews reveal a whole new way of living, one that’s highly structured and self-protective. The structure consists of system of houses where the young men function as apprentices. Reflecting a minority coping with hatred, the houses are associations of friends, presided over by a “mother,” like Pepper, that provide a substitute for biological families.

Willi Ninja, the head of such a house, is an articulate man who’s also a master in “voguing,” in which dancers attempt to top each other by using gestures of high-fashion models. Related to voguing is “shade,” which is defined as the “verbal abuse, criticism and humiliation of a rival or competitor.” “Throwing shade” is what they do when they do it.

At the beginning of the film, the drag queens talk much in the manner of would-be Hollywood starlets. “The balls,” says Pepper, “are our fantasies of being superstars.” However, as the documentary progresses, the talk becomes more somber and melancholy. For instance, Carmen, a transsexual, discusses her operations, and Venus Xtravaganza, who is light-skinned and blond, dreams of finding Mr. Right. Dorian Corey, an aging drag queen, sits in front of a mirror applying make-up. Once he wanted to make his mark in the world, but now, he believes he will have made his mark if he just gets through life.

A lot of common sense and wit are hidden behind their role-playing, but there’s also sadness as the transvestites go out of their way to imitate the members of a society that will never accept them. Drawing on one group’s reaction to a lifelong oppression, Paris Is Burning show individuals who desire fame and luxury much more than personal happiness. Livingston blames the advertisements they see in the media for fostering their unrealistic yearnings.

The ball society embodies several unresolvable contradictions. Is it a manifestation of creative adaptation or identification with the aggressor Is it the victim’s innocence or his refusal to be excluded from the culture of the rich and famous Is it genuine art or just mimicry The voices in the film express creative energy by way of imitation. They insist that life, particularly when its meanings are drawn from magazines and movies, is about consumption and interpretation. The film shows the devastating effects of living in a consumerist society, how one particular group responds in its own way to intense pressure for conformity.

Paris Is Burning also exemplifies how African-American cultural expression–music, dance–has become co-opted and diluted for mass appeal. Drag queens have largely benefited from the media attention, which began with Madonna’s “Vogue” video, released before Paris Is Burning hit theaters. Several of the film’s subjects toured with Madonna and were in her video. But some disturbing questions prevail: Was Madonna exploiting them or giving them an opportunity to work The MTV voguing was packaged by Madonna for mainstream consumption. It also reiterated the failure of mainstream culture to even acknowledge the creative black genius it eagerly exploited.

Ultimately, Paris Is Burning raises some troubling questions about the fluidity of sexual identity and the tyranny of the media. While praised by some critics for handling thorny problems, others have questioned the wisdom of bringing to light the spectacle of ghetto youth imitating bourgeois whiteness. In a critical article in Z magazine, bell hooks depicted the white, upper-middle class Livingston as an intrepid bwana voyaging into the “heart of darkness” in order to bring back African-American exotica mostly for white consumption.

Livingston was disappointed by the reluctance of some gay organizations to back her film. The Chicago Resource Center, a funding source for many gay projects, claimed that the movie did not meet their “criteria.” But Livingston charged that the lack of funding was based on the fact that Paris Is Burning was not about a sector of gay society that gay organizations wanted to show and/or promote. As she explained: “Poor black drag queens were not Harvey Milk, not a nice white guy you can bring home to mom.”

Being a white filmmaker didn’t help matters either. Some feared the film would be exploitative, or that there would be a backlash from the African-American and Latino communities. Drag queens made many gay people uncomfortable. For Livingston, the irony is that it was drag queens that started the Stonewall riot (documented in the fictionalized feature, Stonewall), which launched the gay-rights movement. The political dimensions of drag balls–class, race, and gender–were central to the film.

In the course of shooting the movie, the voguing scene began to change, due to cultural cooptation and also the deteriorating climate of urban violence; one of the transvestites in the film was murdered on the streets during the shoot. And a mummified body was found in the closet of a man after he had died of AIDS.

Because it’s a documentary on a politically charged subject, Paris Is Burning might never have found a distributor, had it not played to sell-out crowds for five months at New York’s Film Forum. It was later released by Miramax, which, with its notoriously shrewd and aggressive marketing, made it into one of the most commercially successful documentaries ever made.

Paris Is Burning shared the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary with Barbara Kopple’s American Dream at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, and later won the Los Angeles Film Critics Best Documentary Award.

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