Paris Is Burning (film)
|Paris Is Burning|
|Directed by||Jennie Livingston|
|Produced by||Jennie Livingston|
Octavia St. Laurent
|Editing by||Jonathan Oppenheim|
|Distributed by||Miramax Films|
|Release date(s)||August 1991|
|Running time||78 minutes|
|Budget||$500,000 USD (estimated)|
Paris Is Burning is a 1990 documentary film directed by Jennie Livingston. Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, it chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the African American, Latino, gay and transgender communities involved in it. Many members of the ball culture community consider Paris Is Burning to be an invaluable documentary of the end of the "Golden Age" of New York City drag balls, as well as a thoughtful exploration of race, class, and gender in America.
The film explores the elaborately-structured Ball competitions in which contestants, adhering to a very specific category or theme, must "walk" (much like a fashion model's runway) and subsequently be judged on criteria including the "realness" of their drag, the beauty of their clothing and their dancing ability.
Most of the film alternates between footage of balls and interviews with prominent members of the scene, including Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Angie Xtravaganza, and Willi Ninja. Many of the contestants vying for trophies are representatives of "Houses" (in the fashion sense, such as "House of Chanel") that serve as intentional families, social groups, and performance teams. Houses and ball contestants who consistently won in their walks eventually earned a "legendary" status.
Jennie Livingston, who never went to film school and who spent seven years making Paris Is Burning, concentrated on interviews with key figures in the ball world, many of whom contribute monologues that shed light on the ball culture as well as on their own personalities. In the film, titles such as "house," "mother," and "reading" emphasize how the subculture the film depicts has taken words from the straight and white worlds, and imbued them with alternate meanings, just as the "houses" serve as surrogate families for young ball-walkers whose sexual orientations have sometimes made acceptance and love within their own families hard to come by.
The film depicts people with different gender identities or communities and their different forms of expression. It also explores how its subjects dealt with the adversity of racism, homophobia, AIDS and poverty. For example, some, like Venus Xtravaganza became sex workers, some shoplift clothing, and some were thrown out of their homes by homophobic parents. One was saving money for sex reassignment surgery. Yet what makes this film significant is its approach. According to Livingston and according to the reviewers and movie-goers who viewed the film, this documentary is a multi-leveled exploration of a subculture in African American and Latino cultures that proves to be a microcosm of society, which was an underappreciated and arguably underground world that many Americans were unfamiliar with. Through candid one-on-one interviews the film offers insight into the lives and struggles of its subjects and the strength, pride, and humor they maintain to survive in a "rich, white world."
Drag is presented as a complex performance of gender, class and race, in which one can express one's identity, desires and aspirations along many dimensions. The African American and Latino community depicted in the film includes a diverse range of identities and gender presentations, from gay men to butch queens to transgender women.
The film also documents the origins of "voguing", a dance style in which competing ball-walkers freeze and "pose" in glamorous positions (as if being photographed for the cover of Vogue). Pop star Malcolm McLaren (with Mark Moore of S'Express and William Orbit) would, two years before Paris Is Burning was completed, bring the phenomenon to the mainstream with his song "Deep In Vogue", which sampled the movie and directly referenced many of the stars of Paris Is Burning including Pepper Labeija and featured dancers from the film including Willi Ninja. The single went to number 1 in the US Billboard Dance Chart. One year after this, Madonna released her number one song Vogue, bringing further attention to the dancing style. Music producers C&C Music Factory sampled some of "Paris is Burning" in one of the tracks from their Gonna Make You Sweat album, titled "Bonus" or "Shade". Famous drag queen RuPaul has also sampled a few of the quotes from the documentary in her movie Starrbooty, as well as on her TV show "RuPaul's Drag Race".
The film received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts shortly during the period when the organization was under fire for funding controversial artists including Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. Aware that publicity surrounding her project could result in revoked funding, Livingston avoided releasing many details about the project outside of her small circle of producers and collaborators.
Several of the most heavily featured performers wished to sue in 1991 for a share of the film's profits. Paris DuPree sought the largest settlement with $40 million for unauthorized use of her ball. The producers stated that they had always planned on compensating the principal participants. All dropped their claims after their attorneys confirmed that they had signed releases. The producers then distributed approximately $55,000 among thirteen of the participants.
Critical reception 
Upon its release the documentary received rave reviews from critics and won several awards including a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, a Berlin Film Festival Teddy Bear, an audience award from the Toronto International Film Festival, a GLAAD Media Award, a Women in Film Crystal Award, a Best Documentary award from the Los Angeles, New York, and National Film Critics' Circles, and it also was named as one of the 1991's best films by the LA Times, the Washington Post, National Public Radio, Time Magazine and others. 'Paris Is Burning' failed to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary feature that year, adding to a growing perception that certain subjects and treatments were excluded from consideration for Oscars, and leading, in part, to a change in how documentaries are nominated for the Academy Awards. Amongst communities of color, response was mixed: critic bell hooks (writing for Z Magazine) saw the ball world and participants as politically and personally misguided, and the filmmaker as primarily a white filmmaker portraying a Black and Latino subculture for the entertainment of other white people; several queer critics of color (Michelle Parkerson writing for the Black Film Review; Essex Hemphill writing for The Guardian; Jacky Goldsby writing for Afterimage) saw the film as a collection of authentic, powerful voices. Jesse Green, writing for the New York Times, suggested that making Paris is Burning had enabled Livingston to become a filmmaker, while the film had done nothing for the people in the film.
20 years later, Paris Is Burning remains an organizing tool for queer and trans youth; a way for scholars and students to examine issues of race, class, and gender; a way for younger ball participants to meet their ancestors; and a portrait of several remarkable Americans, many of whom have died since the filming of the movie.
Long out of print on videocassette, the film was released on DVD in 2005 and is available for streaming on Netflix and Hulu.
- 1990 IDA Award, International Documentary Association
- 1990 LAFCA Award Best Documentary, Los Angeles Film Critics Association
- 1990 Audience Award Best Documentary, San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival
- 1991 Grand Jury Prize Documentary, Sundance Film Festival
- 1991 Teddy Award for Best Documentary Film, Berlin International Film Festival
- 1991 Boston Society of Film Critics Awards (BSFC) Best Documentary
- 1991 the very first Open Palm Award, now called Breakthrough Director Award Gotham Awards
- 1991 NYFCC Award Best Documentary, New York Film Critics Circle Awards
- 1991 Golden Space Needle Award Best Documentary, Seattle International Film Festival
- 1992 Outstanding Film (Documentary), GLAAD Media Awards
- 1992 NSFC Award Best Documentary, National Society of Film Critics
See also 
- Green, Jesse (April 18, 1993). "Paris Has Burned". The New York Times. Retrieved May 21, 2010.
- Seidel, Dena. "An Interview with Jennie Livingston." Films for the Feminist Classroom 1.1 (2009): 1-16. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.
- Barry Koltnow, “Director Says 'Paris' Isn't Just Dance Film Jennie Livingston Wants People to Look at 'Paris Is Burning' with an Open Mind and an Understanding Heart,” Orlando Sentinel, September 4, 1991 pg.1
- Malcolm McLaren - Let It Rock
- Boykin, Keith. "::Willie Ninja::". Ohm1.com. Retrieved 2012-05-31.
- Billboard Dance/Club Chart - July 29 1989
- Grimes, William (July 13, 1995). "Oscar Rules Change For Documentaries". The New York Times.
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