Paris Is Burning (film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Paris Is Burning
Paris is Burning (DVD box art).jpg
DVD cover
Directed byJennie Livingston
Produced byJennie Livingston
CinematographyPaul Gibson
Edited byJonathan Oppenheim
Academy Entertainment
Off White Productions
Distributed byOff-White Productions
Release date
  • September 13, 1990 (1990-09-13) (Toronto)[1]
  • December 4, 1990 (1990-12-04) (Princeton)[1]
  • January 1991 (1991-01) (Sundance)[1][2]
  • February 23, 1991 (1991-02-23) (Berlin)[1]
  • March 13, 1991 (1991-03-13) (NYC)[1]
Running time
78 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$3,779,620[3]

Paris Is Burning is a 1990 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.[4][5]

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 realized that they were referring to the "categories" in the ball competitions), Livingston asked what they were doing, and was told they were voguing. Thinking that it might be a good subject for a university documentary project, Livingston asked how she could learn more; the men suggested that she attend a ball and contact dancer Willi Ninja.

Livingston met the then-teenage Venus Xtravaganza at the first ball she attended. She spent time with Ninja to learn about ball culture and voguing. She also researched the history of Harlem's gay and drag subcultures. After photographing several balls with her still camera, Livingston realized that what she was seeing and hearing needed more thorough documentation. 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 was forced to raise an additional $150,000 to cover the cost of copyright clearances for music that was played over the PA system as she filmed.[6]

While the film was still in production, Livingston met British pop impresario Malcolm McLaren, who often visited New York and had become fascinated with the 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 gave the tape to his collaborators Mark Moore and William Orbit, who used numerous samples from the soundtrack for their remix of the song. McLaren decided to release their remix 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). The song topped the US dance chart at the end of July 1989, as well as charting in the UK and Australia. 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 parades a runway). Contestants are judged on criteria including their dance talent, the beauty of their clothing, and the "realness" of their drag (i.e., their ability to pass as a member of the group or sex they are portraying). For example, the category "banjee realness" comprises gay men portraying macho archetypes such as sailors, soldiers, and street hoodlums. "Banjee boys" are judged by their ability to pass as their straight counterparts in the outside world.

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" that serve as intentional families, social groups, and performance teams. Houses and ball contestants who consistently win trophies for their walks eventually earn "legendary" status.

Jennie Livingston, who moved to New York after graduating from Yale to work in film and spent six years[7] making Paris Is Burning, interviews key figures in the ball world. Many of them contribute monologues that shed light on gender roles, gay and ball subcultures, and their own life stories. The film explains how words such as house, mother, shade, reading and legendary gain new meaning when used in novel ways to describe the gay and drag subculture. The "houses" serve as surrogate families for young ball-walkers who face rejection from their biological families for their gender expression and sexual orientation.[8]

The film also explores how its subjects deal with issues such as AIDS, racism, poverty, violence and homophobia. Some, such as Venus Xtravaganza, become sex workers to support themselves. (Near the end of the film, Angie Xtravaganza, Venus's "house mother", reacts to news that Venus is found strangled to death and speculates that a disgruntled client killed her.) Others shoplift clothing so they can "walk" in the balls. Several are disowned by trans- and homophobic parents, leaving them vulnerable to homelessness. Some subjects save money for sex reassignment surgery, while a few have completely transitioned; others receive breast implants without undergoing vaginoplasty. Several subjects discuss the effects of sex-change surgery on their careers, social lives, self-esteem and gender presentation.

According to Livingston, the documentary is a multi-leveled exploration of an African-American and Latino subculture that serves as a microcosm of fame, race, and wealth in the larger US culture.[9] 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 display to survive in a "rich, white world."

Drag is presented as a complex performance of gender, class, and race, and a way to express one's identity, desires and aspirations. The African-American and Latino community depicted in the film includes a diverse range of sexual 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 pose and freeze 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 voguing to the mainstream with his song "Deep in Vogue", which sampled the movie[10] and directly referenced several of its stars, including Pepper LaBeija; the music video also featured dancers from the film, including Willi Ninja.[11] The single went to number 1 in the US Billboard Dance Chart.[12] The next year, Madonna released her number one song "Vogue", bringing further attention to the phenomenon.

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."[9]

Music producers C&C Music Factory sampled Paris is Burning in one of the tracks from their Gonna Make You Sweat album, entitled "Bonus" or "Shade". RuPaul also sampled a few quotes from the documentary in the film Starrbooty, as well as on 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 sued for a share of the film's profits in 1991, 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.[4]

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"[6][13]

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,[14] 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. This led to changes on how documentaries are nominated for the Academy Awards.[15]

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.[16]

Critical reception[edit]

Film Director for Paris Is Burning, 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".[17] Other authors such as Judith Butler and Phillip Harper have focused on the drag queens' desire to perform and present "realness".[18] Realness can be described as the ability to appropriate an authentic gender expression.[19] 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.[18]

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.[17]

Butler responds to hooks's previous opinion that drag is misogynistic, stating in her book, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex":[20]

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.[19]

Both Hooks and Harper criticize the filmmaker, Jennie Livingston, a white lesbian, 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)".[17]

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.[17]

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".[21]

Butler draws upon this film to comment on the role of interpellation in the social construction of gender.[20] 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.[20]



  1. ^ a b c d e "Paris Is Burning (1990) release information". IMDb.
  2. ^ "Paris Is Burning". Sundance Institute. Retrieved September 2, 2018.
  3. ^ a b Paris Is Burning at Box Office Mojo
  4. ^ a b Green, Jesse (April 18, 1993). "Paris Has Burned". The New York Times. Retrieved May 21, 2010.
  5. ^ Levy, Emanuel. "Paris is Burning". Retrieved July 10, 2014.
  6. ^ a b Jones, Saeed (March 23, 2013). "Filmmaker Jennie Livingston on life and loss after Paris is Burning". BuzzFeed. Retrieved July 13, 2018.
  7. ^ Interview with Jennie Livingston and the cast of Paris Is Burning. The Joan Rivers Show. August 8, 1991 – via YouTube.
  8. ^ Dena Seidel (2009). "An Interview with Jennie Livingston". Films for the Feminist Classroom 1.1: 1–16.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ Malcolm McLaren – Let It Rock
  11. ^ Boykin, Keith. "Willie Ninja". Retrieved May 31, 2012.
  12. ^ Billboard Dance/Club Chart – July 29 1989.
  13. ^ Clark, Ashley (June 24, 2015). "Burning Down The House: why the debate over Paris is Burning rages on". The Guardian. Retrieved July 13, 2018.
  14. ^ Warbler, Daniel (June 2, 2014). "THE OUT TAKE: 10 FANTASTIC TEDDY AWARD-WINNING LGBT FILMS TO WATCH RIGHT NOW". Retrieved September 9, 2018.
  15. ^ Grimes, William (July 13, 1995). "Oscar Rules Change For Documentaries". The New York Times.
  16. ^ Martin, Douglas (May 26, 2003). "Pepper LaBeija, Queen of Harlem Drag Balls, Is Dead at 53". The New York Times. Retrieved June 4, 2014.
  17. ^ a b c d bell hooks. Is Paris Burning? (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on March 4, 2016. Retrieved May 11, 2015.
  18. ^ a b Phillip Brian Harper (1994). "'The Subversive Edge': Paris Is Burning, Social Critique, and the Limits of Subjective Agency". Diacritics. 24 (2/3): 90–103. JSTOR 465166 – via JSTOR.
  19. ^ a b Judith Butler (1993). "Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion". Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex". New York: Routledge. pp. 121–140.
  20. ^ a b c Judith Butler (1993). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex". Psychology Press. ISBN 978-0-4159-0366-0.
  21. ^ Kimberly Chabot Davis (Winter 1999). "White Filmmakers and Minority Subjects: Cinema Vérité and the Politics of Irony in Hoop Dreams and Paris Is Burning". South Atlantic Review. South Atlantic Modern Language Association. 64 (1): 26–47. doi:10.2307/3201743. JSTOR 3201743 – via JSTOR.
  22. ^ Complete National Film Registry Listing. Library of Congress.

External links[edit]