Paris Is Burning (film)

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Paris Is Burning
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 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.[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".


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[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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[7] and directly referenced many of the stars of Paris Is Burning including Pepper LaBeija and featured dancers from the film, including Willi Ninja.[8] The single went to number 1 in the US Billboard Dance Chart.[9] 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."[6]

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, because 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 did not have enough resources to continue paying for lawyers. The producers then distributed approximately $55,000 among thirteen of the participants.[2]

Another critique of the film, was that the lens of the movie left out crucial parts of the story like Venus Xtravaganza being murdered during the film shooting [10]. This was considered concerning due to the fact that the director, Jennie Levingston is a cisgendered white women trying to tell a story about queer and trans people of color's stories, and therefor lost depth and authenticity [11]

Upon 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, 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.[12]

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.[13]

Critical reception[edit]

Some people have criticized Paris Is Burning. In Is Paris Burning?, bell hooks, a feminist writer who is not LGBT-identified, questioned Livingston's depiction of the drag balls, arguing that it reduces them to 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.[14]

Authors including Kimberly Chabot Davis, have also criticized Paris is Burning as being sensational and racially problematic due to the directors 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."[15]

hooks also questioned 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.

In her book, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex", Judith Butler draws upon this film to comment on the role of interpellation in the social construction of gender.[16]



  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. ^ Interview of Jennie Livingston and the cast of Paris is burning by Joan Rivers on the Joan Rivers Show; August 8, 1991
  5. ^ Seidel, Dena. "An Interview with Jennie Livingston." Films for the Feminist Classroom 1.1 (2009): 1–16. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ Malcolm McLaren – Let It Rock
  8. ^ Boykin, Keith. "Willie Ninja". Retrieved 2012-05-31. 
  9. ^ Billboard Dance/Club Chart – July 29 1989.
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ Grimes, William (July 13, 1995). "Oscar Rules Change For Documentaries". The New York Times. 
  13. ^ Martin, Douglas (May 26, 2003). "Pepper LaBeija, Queen of Harlem Drag Balls, Is Dead at 53". The New York Times. Retrieved June 4, 2014. 
  14. ^ Is Paris Burning? (PDF). 
  15. ^ 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 – via JSTOR. 
  16. ^ Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex". 
  17. ^ Complete National Film Registry Listing. 

External links[edit]