Paris Is Burning (film)

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Paris Is Burning
Paris is Burning (DVD box art).jpg
DVD cover
Directed by Jennie Livingston
Produced by Jennie Livingston
Cinematography Paul Gibson
Edited by Jonathan Oppenheim
Academy Entertainment
Off White Productions
Distributed by Miramax Films
Release date
  • August 16, 1991 (1991-08-16)
Running time
78 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $500,000[1]
Box office $3,779,620[1]

Paris Is Burning is a 1991 American 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. Some critics consider the film to be an invaluable documentary of the end of the "Golden Age" of New York City drag balls, and a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America.[2][3]

In 2016, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Conception and production[edit]

Livingston was a film student at New York University when she had a chance meeting in 1983 with a group of young gay men who were dancing and posing in Washington Square Park. Intrigued by their movements and the unusual slang they were using (she later realised that they were referring to the "categories" in the ball competitions), Livingston asked what they were doing, and was informed that they were voguing. Thinking that it might be a good subject for a pending university documentary project, Livingston asked how she could learn more, and the men suggested that she attend a ball, and recommended that she contact dancer Willi Ninja.

At the first ball she attended she met the then teenage Venus Xtravaganza, and she subsequently spent a lot of time talking with and learning about ball culture and voguing from Ninja, and researching the history of Harlem's gay and drag subculture. She attended and photographed many balls with her still camera but gradually came to realise that what she was seeing and hearing needed more, so she began filming the balls and doing on-camera interviews with key figures from the various "houses" that competed. Livingston initially raised about $250,000 to fund the production, but then had to raise an additional $150,000 to cover the cost of copyright clearances for the music that was being played over the PA as she filmed.[4]

While the film was still in production, Livingston met British pop impresario Malcolm McLaren, who often visited New York and had become fascinated with vogue/ball scene. In early 1989 McLaren brought Livingston and leading voguer Willi Ninja to London, where Ninja contributed vocals to McLaren's new single and performed on the promotional music video, which Livingston directed. Livingston had also given McLaren a VHS copy of footage from the film, with permission to sample audio files from it. McLaren then gave the tape to his collaborators Mark Moore and William Orbit, who used numerous samples from the soundtrack for their remix of the song, which McLaren then decided to issue instead of the original track. The resulting single, "Deep in Vogue", became the first popular song to bring voguing to wide public attention (predating Madonna's "Vogue" by approximately nine months), topping the US dance chart at the end of July that year, as well as charting in the UK and Australia, and the music video was shown on music programs and music channels in all three countries.


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-brand 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 moved to New York after graduating from Yale to work in film, and who spent six years[5] 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.[6] 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 participant was saving money for sex reassignment surgery. According to Livingston, the 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.[7] 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 men and 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). Artist 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[8] and directly referenced many of the stars of Paris Is Burning including Pepper LaBeija and featured dancers from the film, including Willi Ninja.[9] The single went to number 1 in the US Billboard Dance Chart.[10] One year after this, Madonna released her number one song "Vogue", bringing further attention to the dancing style.

However Livingston maintains that the film is not just about "a cute dance." "This is a film that is important for anyone to see, whether they're gay or not. It's about how we're all influenced by the media; how we strive to meet the demands of the media by trying to look like Vogue models or by owning a big car. And it's about survival. It's about people who have a lot of prejudices against them and who have learned to survive with wit, dignity and energy. It's a little story about how we all survive."[7]

Music producers C&C Music Factory sampled some of Paris is Burning in one of the tracks from their Gonna Make You Sweat album, entitled "Bonus" or "Shade". Famous drag queen RuPaul has also sampled a few of the quotes from the documentary in her film Starrbooty, as well as on her TV show RuPaul's Drag Race.


The film received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts 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, as they were unequally paid. Paris DuPree sought the largest settlement: $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 non-disclosure agreements, and they lacked the resources to continue paying for lawyers. The producers then distributed approximately $55,000 among thirteen of the participants.[2]

Livingston herself has consistently downplayed the financial controversy in interviews and forums, pointing out that it was always her intention to share some of the returns if and when the film went into profit, that the principals were paid considerably more than they would otherwise have received if they had been actors in an independently-made drama feature, and noting that a considerable portion of their eventual settlement went straight to their attorneys because they had chosen to pursue the matter through the courts.

She has also deflected the critiques of the film that focus on issues of cultural appropriation, gender, race and sexuality, suggesting that: "I think that's partially because when a queer woman makes something, we're supposed to be held to higher standards than Martin Scorsese or Michael Moore" and pointing out that at the time Paris is Burning was made she was, in her own words, “up against an entire establishment of people who didn’t want you as a woman making a film, didn’t want to see queer images, and didn’t want to give you the money, which is still an issue for women film-makers and queer film-makers”[11][12]

Upon its release, the documentary received rave reviews from critics and won several awards including a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, a Berlin International 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 1991's best films by the Los Angeles 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, which added to a growing perception that certain subjects and treatments were excluded from consideration for Oscars. That was a factor in changes on how documentaries are nominated for the Academy Awards.[13]

More than two decades later, Paris Is Burning remains an organizing tool for gay 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, most of whom have died since the film's production.[14]

Critical reception[edit]

Film Director for Paris Is Burning (film) and KiKi, Jennie Livingston

Feminist writer Bell Hooks has criticized the film for reinforcing the socialized idea that white femininity is the proper gender expression to aspire to. She states, "The femininity most sought after, most adored, was that perceived to be the exclusive property of white womanhood”.[15] Other authors such as Judith Butler and Phillip Harper have focused on the drag queens' desire to perform and present “realness”.[16] Realness can be described as the ability to appropriate an authentic gender expression.[17] When performing under certain categories at the Ball, such as school girl or executive, the queens are rewarded for appearing as close to the “real thing” as possible. A main goal amongst the contestants is to perform conventional gender roles while at the same time trying to challenge them.[16]

hooks also questions the political efficacy of the drag balls themselves, citing her own experimentations with drag, and suggesting that the balls themselves lack political, artistic, and social significance. hooks criticizes the production and questions gay men performing drag, suggesting that it is inherently misogynistic and degrading towards women.[15]

Butler responds to hooks' previous opinion that drag is misogynistic, stating in her book, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex"[18]:

The problem with the analysis of drag as only misogyny is, of course, that it figures male-to-female transsexuality, cross-dressing, and drag as male homosexual activities- which they are not always- and it further diagnoses male homosexuality as rooted in misogyny.[17]

Both hooks and Harper criticize the filmmaker, Jennie Livingston, a white lesbian woman, for remaining visibly absent from the film. Although the viewers are able to hear Livingston a few times during the production, the director's physical absence while orchestrating the viewer's perspective, creates what Hooks calls an “Imperial Oversee(r)”.[15] In addition, hooks questions Livingston's depiction of the drag balls, arguing that it reduces the experiences of drag queens to a mere spectacle:

Much of the film's focus on pageantry takes the ritual of the black drag ball and makes it spectacle. Ritual is that ceremonial act that carries with it meaning and significance beyond what appears, while spectacle functions primarily as entertaining dramatic display... Hence it is easy for white observers to depict black rituals as spectacle.[15]

In White Filmmakers and Minority Subjects: Cinema Vérité and the Politics of Irony in Hoop Dreams and Paris Is Burning, Kimberly Chabot Davis, also criticizes the film as being sensational and racially problematic due to the director's position as a white woman. She states, "the power wielded by the camera, over both the audience and subject, has been a central concern in the history of documentary film".[19]

Butler draws upon this film to comment on the role of interpellation in the social construction of gender.[18] Butler describes interpellation as the idea that individuals and their gender identities are not fully formed until another person acknowledges them. Davis argues that as the film director, Livingston, has the power to create the drag queen and manipulate viewers' assumptions of gender.[18]



  1. ^ a b Paris Is Burning at Box Office Mojo
  2. ^ a b Green, Jesse (April 18, 1993). "Paris Has Burned". The New York Times. Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  3. ^ Levy, Emanuel. "Paris is Burning". Retrieved 10 July 2014. 
  4. ^ [ Saeed Jones, "Filmmaker Jennie Livingstone on Life and Loss after Paris is Burning,, 23 March 2013]
  5. ^ Interview of Jennie Livingston and the cast of Paris is burning by Joan Rivers on the Joan Rivers Show; August 8, 1991
  6. ^ Seidel, Dena. "An Interview with Jennie Livingston." Films for the Feminist Classroom 1.1 (2009): 1–16. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.
  7. ^ a b Koltnow, Barry (September 4, 1991). "Director says Paris isn't just dance film: Livingston wants people to look at Paris is Burning with and open mind and understanding heart". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved November 30, 2014. 
  8. ^ Malcolm McLaren – Let It Rock
  9. ^ Boykin, Keith. "Willie Ninja". Retrieved 2012-05-31. 
  10. ^ Billboard Dance/Club Chart – July 29 1989.
  11. ^ Jones, Saeed (March 23, 2013). "Filmmaker Jennie Livingston on life and loss after Paris is Burning". Retrieved 2018-07-13. 
  12. ^ Clark, Ashley (June 24, 2015). "Burning Down The House: why the debate over Paris is Burning rages on". Retrieved 2018-07-13. 
  13. ^ Grimes, William (July 13, 1995). "Oscar Rules Change For Documentaries". The New York Times. 
  14. ^ Martin, Douglas (May 26, 2003). "Pepper LaBeija, Queen of Harlem Drag Balls, Is Dead at 53". The New York Times. Retrieved June 4, 2014. 
  15. ^ a b c d Is Paris Burning? (PDF). 
  16. ^ a b Harper, Phillip Brian. “‘The Subversive Edge’: Paris Is Burning, Social Critique, and the Limits of Subjective Agency.” Diacritics, vol. 24, no. 2/3, 1994, pp. 90–103. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  17. ^ a b Butler, Judith. "Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion" In Bodies that Matter: On the Duscursive Limits of "Sex" by Butler. New York: Routledge, 1993. pp. 121-140
  18. ^ a b c Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex". 
  19. ^ Davis, Kimberly Chabot. "White Filmmakers and Minority Subjects: Cinema Verite and the Politics of Irony in "Hoop Dreams" and" Paris Is Burning"". South Atlantic Modern Language Association. JSTOR 3201743. 
  20. ^ Complete National Film Registry Listing. 

External links[edit]