Paris Is Burning is one of the most important queer films ever made.
The 1990 documentary turns a camera on drag balls and queer culture of late ’80s New York, providing a glimpse into a world that even today few people ever see. It’s a vital document, but when it came out — and even to this day — Paris Is Burning has provoked conflict and controversy.
A chief criticism of the film is that filmmaker Jennie Livingston was the wrong person to tell this story about low-income people of color. As a white, middle-class lesbian, many felt she seized the meaningful ritual of the drag ball and twisted it into a mere show, rather than fully explaining its significance.
Some observers have accused Livingston of being an outsider looking in. And to the extent that she’s not a drag queen, that’s true. But Livingston isn’t our only guide through the culture that she documents; in fact, it often seems more like the subjects’ film than hers.
Regarding the film from the distance time provides, it seems clear that the film takes pains to explain just why the drag balls are so important. The audience spends extensive one-on-one time with individuals who explain their background, their passion for drag and what it means to have this creative outlet. Livingston’s voice retreats; as an interviewer, she lets her subjects speak.
It’s certainly true the film was, and continues to be, a source of appropriation.
Slang like “throwing shade” and “executive realness” are still extracted from the documentary by people with no other connection to ball culture. Taking bits and pieces from the culture is a problem if it’s done without an acknowledgement or appreciation for the source. (And, yeah, it’s galling how many people think Madonna invented voguing.)
Participants also claimed they were entitled to some of the proceeds from the film. One asked for $40 million. Eventually the producers paid out $55,000 to about a dozen of the people who appear.
That the film was even made — let alone that it can be considered a success — is nothing short of remarkable. In the late ’80s, it was an unbelievable long shot that anyone would pay a female filmmaker for a documentary about queer people of color.
Would a trans person of color have been a better director? It’s impossible to say, and likely that such a director would have faced even more obstacles to getting the film made and released. And as important as Paris Is Burning is, equally important are other documents about New York’s queer ballroom scene: The Queen, for example, a pre-Stonewall movie about balls in the 1960s; The Cockettes, chronicling the 1970s drag troupe; and Tender By Night, a short doc about aging queens reflecting back on their long careers.