Movie Review: Paris is Burning (1990) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “P” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “P” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Pete Seeger: The Power of SongProhibition, and Punk’s Not Dead.

TitleParis is Burning
Release Date: August 16, 1991
Director: Jennie Livingston
Production Company: Academy Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Filmed in Harlem in the 1980s, Paris is Burning captures the intersection of poverty, race, sexuality, and gender identity.  The focus of the movie is the balls held in Elks Lodges and YMCAs in Harlem where participants “walk” to win trophies in a variety of categories.  An older participant tells the balls began as drag performances where participants wore Las Vegas-style showgirl attire, but have since grown to contain a bewildering number of categories including business attire, military dress, High Fashion Winter Sportswear, and “realness” – that is the ability to pass as a straight person.

Participants in the balls are members of Houses, a surrogate family for LBGTQ people who’ve often been disowned by their blood relatives, or as on interviewee states “a gay street gang.”  But the Houses do not fight with fists or knives, but on the floor of the balls where they try to bring honor to House LaBeija, House Extravangza, House Pendavis, and House Ninja, among others.

Candid interviews with participants – black and Latin American gay men and transgender individuals – show how the balls and houses provide them with security and support to be themselves and been seen for who they are.  The film is both heartwarming and heartbreaking in the little victories and great prejudices the interviewees experience.  The ball being a place where one can “be whoever you want to be” is a positive, yet in many cases the participants are emulating a wealthy, white culture that would never accept them, and frankly one not worthy of being emulated.  One of the interviewees, a trans woman named Venus Xtravaganza so perfectly presents herself as a blonde, preppy teen not unlike those I went to school with in Connecticut.  Yet during the time of filming of Paris is Burning, Venus is horribly murdered, most likely a hate crime against her as a transgender person, and something that is an ongoing threat to black and Latin transgender people 28 years later.

This documentary about a subculture most people wouldn’t otherwise know anything about has left quite a cultural legacy.  Terms defined in the movie like “throwing shade” have become mainstream and the style of dancing at balls known as “voguing” of course became the source of a big hit song for Madonna. The sad thing watching this movie decades later is that many of the people feature in the movie have since died, and did not gain anything materially from the film, nor did they get to see the effect it had on mainstream culture.  The film stands as a memory of a time and place and a vessel that gives voice to people who would not otherwise have been heard.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

This entire movie was an education and I expect it will be quite illuminating for most viewers.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

I like this movie and think it is a well-intentioned tribute to the ball culture of the 1980s, and as all good documentaries it gets to the heart of what it means to be human. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it is very controversial and some criticize the movie for exploiting the participants and for cultural appropriation.  The feminist bell hooks wrote Is Paris Burning in response to this documentary.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ****

6 thoughts on “Movie Review: Paris is Burning (1990) #atozchallenge

  1. One weekend when I’m home alone, I think I’ll watch this – I don’t believe I had heard of this documentary.

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