By Andrea Thompson
It's often remarked that great art comes from pain. Nowadays there's sort of an addendum, in that said pain is often co-opted by the those in power. This was already well underway by the time Jennie Livingston's documentary “Paris Is Burning” was released in 1990, which follows New York's drag scene in the 1980s, and the many peole who made it what it was.
Past tense is key here. By this time, voguing had become mainstream, with a prime example being Madonna's Vogue video that year. There's always going to be some sense of melancholy to any snapshot of the New York that existed in the 80s and 90s, fictional or otherwise. At least we have “Paris Is Burning” as a chronicle of this vibrant community, which mostly consists of LGBT people of color, and who have only barely been represented in mainstream cinema. Or for that matter, even acknowledged for their cultural contributions.
The first words spoken are from one of the film's subjects, who says, “I remember my dad used to say, 'You have three strikes against you in this world. Every black man has two, just that they're black, and they're a male. But you're black, and you're a male, and you're gay. You're gonna have a hard fucking time.' And he said, 'If you're gonna do this, you're gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined.'”
The rest of the film is how various people in this cope with the truth behind these words in this particular time and place, which is a conversation that is also only beginning to be acknowledged (and more often than not, denied) by the mainstream. And the balls, which many have dismissed as spectacle, are an important part of life for many. Taking place in shabby rooms, they mostly consist of people of color cheering on those who walk, showing off the fabulousness of their outfits...or in some cases, their lack of them.
While many of the people on camera don't delve into too much detail about their backgrounds, stories of their vulnerability are rampant. Many of them ran away to New York City in search of a home, while others were thrown out by homophobic and transphobic families. The balls are where they can be with those who share their identity, passions, and interests. They can feel okay about being who they are, and they can also aspire to be who they want to be.
Those who have such hobbies are generally natural performers with the personalities to match. But time and again,, they are shown just how little place their ambitions have in America, especially in the 80s, where practically every form of media depicted white people as emblems of the ideal life, whether it was middle class or the more opulent one that was aspired to more and more as Wall Street became a force unto itself.
It's hardly surprising that such an ambitious exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality provoked controversy, which continues to this day. Director Jennie Livingston was able to capture so much of this world partly because she is a queer woman herself, but her detractors probably have a point when they state that her whiteness held her back. That said, while many of the people in the film have met ends both triumphant and tragic, Livingston has only made shorts since, and has only recently began developing another film. “Paris Is Burning” may have gone to win many awards, and even perhaps help change how documentaries are nominated for Academy Awards, but Livingston herself never became a prolific filmmaker. (If you really want the ultimate rundown of the film and everyone in it, check out out.com's ultimate viewing guide.)
Yet for all its flaws, the conversations “Paris Is Burning” raises continue to be relevant. “All minorities know it's a white America,” Pepper LaBeija person mused. “Any other nationality not of a white set knows this and accepts this till the day they day die. That is everybody's dream and ambition as a minority - to live and look as well as a white person.” One of the images used during this statement is a cover of Forbes magazine. One of the smiling men on that cover is Donald Trump.