For sheer density of vibrant life, few films compare with Paris Is Burning. Released in 1990, Jennie Livingston's documentary dives into the gay ball culture of Harlem, New York, in the late 1980s, getting up close and personal with a number of the scene's key individuals, who hold forth on their lives and art with the otherworldly self-possession of superstars, against a backdrop of intersected communities (poor, queer, and trans) ravaged by a raging AIDS crisis and eight years of pernicious Reagan-era neglect.
The result is a searing cultural documentary that explodes off the screen like a party, thanks primarily to the extensive, exhilarating footage of Harlem drag balls, where black and Latino gay men walk the runway in combination fashion shows/attitude battles to compete in a variety of costume-based categories. Overflowing with sartorial extravagance, audience drama, and seriously innovative dance, these drag-ball sequences are designed to dazzle, and they do, but even these celebratory scenes are laced with sociological grit. (Among the runway categories: "Executive Realness," wherein strenuously ostracized queer men of color present themselves "in drag" as white Wall Street power brokers, complete with eyeglasses and briefcases, putting the warping power of white supremacy literally on parade.)
But Livingston protects herself against charges of cheap cultural tourism with in-depth interviews of the ball scene's magnetic stars and strivers. These are people with richly performed personalities who've devoted themselves to making self-dramatization a meaningful art, and the riches that result from placing such effortlessly presentational, openhearted individuals before a camera are tremendous. I've long marveled at the precise eloquence of even the subjects' most offhand asides—if Paris Is Burning had a screenplay, its writer would've won an Oscar. Interviewees Pepper LaBeija, Willi Ninja, Octavia Saint Laurent, and Venus Xtravaganza hold forth with spontaneous proclamations of such wit, substance, and damning truth that you'll want to take notes. Best in show, forever: Dorian Corey's wise existential philosophizing and guided tour of ball culture's generational differences, Freddie Pendavis's star-making explications of mopping and stunts, and Junior LaBeija's pedantic ferocity as ball MC.
Of course, for the subjects, talking about ball culture means talking about their lives, how their glorious personas were born and exist in defiance of ferocious oppression, and how close to danger they live on a daily basis. (One of Paris Is Burning's star subjects was murdered before the end of filming, and many more would be lost in the decade following the film's release.)
Despite this tragic dimension, the general effect of the film proved to be one of celebration, thanks in part to a closing montage that finds the film's huge-hearted survivors voguing for the camera and sends viewers out of the cinema on the wings of Cheryl Lynn's rapturous "Got to Be Real."
The celebratory aspect of Paris Is Burning has always been contentious. Does embracing the film as a celebration of life mean embracing the brutal facts of the subjects' lives as acceptable fuel for their fabulousness? Does the gaze of outsiders (especially white outsiders) turn the profound ritual of the drag ball into mere spectacle? Such sticky questions are made all the stickier by Paris Is Burning's fraught relationship to race, with multiple subjects, in the words of writer bell hooks, "worship[ping] at the throne of whiteness." Scenes of white worship dot the film, from the aforementioned "Executive Realness" ball category to younger queens' idealization of white TV stars and supermodels to Venus Xtravaganza's widely quoted proclamation, "I want to be a rich, spoiled white girl."
The result is an extraordinary thing: a film about the effects of a racist society that's explicitly flattering to white people. As hooks writes in her 1992 essay "Is Paris Burning?": "What could be more reassuring to a white public... than a documentary affirming that colonized, victimized, exploited, black folks are all too willing to be complicit in perpetuating the fantasy that ruling-class white culture is the quintessential site of unrestricted joy, freedom, power, and pleasure."
Such piercing questions about the film's motives and success have reliably been overshadowed by widespread enthusiasm for the film's—or, more precisely, the ball scene's—raw materials, which were soon exported all over American culture, from Madonna's "Vogue" to the ongoing reading and runway portions of RuPaul's Drag Race. In the film, the grim, incriminating facts are eclipsed by the subjects' profound fabulousness, which seems perfectly, spiritually just.
It's safe to assume each queen's precise traits—the magnetic mystique of Pepper LaBeija, the giddy hyperverbosity of Freddie Pendavis, the shamanic wisdom of Dorian Corey—were cultivated for the express purpose of conquering life's shit with style. Knowing that their triumphs are eternal via celluloid is a glorious thing.
If I've done my job correctly, you are now hungry to watch or rewatch Paris Is Burning, which makes it my pleasure to direct you to Legendary Children: Paris Is Burning & Beyond, a one-night event presented by Seattle Art Museum on Friday, August 14. Along with a public runway and "Vogue 101 Station," the night promises to give the spectacle some invaluable context, courtesy of Stephaun E. Wallace, founding father and executive director of the House of Blahnik, Inc., a national social organization devoted to supporting the house/ball community. Wallace also has his feet on the ground in Seattle's queer POC communities, working as community engagement officer for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center's The Legacy Project to address the underrepresentation of minorities in HIV clinical trials.
Following a screening of the film, Wallace will lead an audience Q&A. The event offers a wealth of delights, including live performances by dancer/choreographer Dani Tirrell, singer/musician Okanomodé, and drag artistes Atasha Manila and Amora Dior Black, and music from DJ Reverend Dollars.
But don't miss the screening of the original document. Whether you've seen it once or 100 times, the movie never stops living.