While promoting the documentary Paris Is Burning in 1990, director Jennie Livingston explained to a reporter how the project took two years to shoot (1985 to 1987), and five years to complete (boiling down 70 hours of footage into 76 minutes). Now that the documentary was behind her, she planned to make feature films. This plan did not materialize. To date, Paris Is Burning is Livingston's only full-length feature, and the reason for this is easy to guess: The work itself had very little to do with her direction. Paris Is Burning was made by its subjects—flamboyant black and Hispanic gays. All Livingston did was go to the right place (Harlem), at the right time (mid-'80s), point the camera at the drag performers (or "walkers"), and shoot.

Paris Is Burning captures the mid to late period of a drag-ball scene that began in the '70s and peaked in the early '90s, when Madonna celebrated its defining dance, called voguing. The balls usually took place late at night, consumed many hours, and involved gay men dressing in a variety of male and female fashions. Several stars of the ball scene are interviewed in their small apartments, in cruising parks, and on the busy streets of New York. All the interviewees have one thing in common: They aspire to the lifestyle of the white, rich, and famous.

And now for a little theory.

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It is instantly apparent that these types of drag balls are about doubly marginalized (by race and sexuality) men simulating a class and a social station that are far beyond their reach. What is harder and more fascinating to contemplate is the deep connection between these balls and the history of American slavery. To get to the heart of this, we must get to the heart of the documentary: the scene where black gay men are dressed like rich white people, doing the sorts of things that rich white people like to do (shopping, sailing, drinking champagne). As the men pose and walk with airs, the voiceover of an interviewee breaks it down like this: "We as a people for the past 400 years [are] the greatest example of behavior modification in the history of civilization. We have had everything taken away from us andyet we have survived." Precisely. The black walkers' will to total fantasy and invention is general to black American culture. Because slave owners stripped the African ancestors of African Americans of their culture (banning drumming, native languages, and so on), blacks in the new world were forced to invent a new culture. This enforced invention became the condition of the culture itself, which is why the source of so many dance forms, neologisms, musical styles, and fashions is black America. What we see in the Harlem ballrooms of Paris Is Burning is a heated laboratory of black invention—the formation and reformation of ways of speaking, moving, and being American.

charles@thestranger.com

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