Paris Is Burning (1990) (R)
One of the most curiously influential documentaries you might not have heard about, "Paris Is Burning" has survived in the canon of film and the scholarly discourse on gender itself due, mostly, to its genuine feel and honesty. It doesn't feel manufactured and doesn't attempt to place words in its subjects mouths...in fact, the amount of time that an commentary whatsoever overshadows the interviewees and the footage is very minimal. The result is unbiased in a corporatism sense. Of course, as most movies, Jennie Livingston attempts to illicit sympathy from the viewer; but the sense of historical importance also seems impossible to ignore.
In the mid 1980s, ball culture in New York was in full swing. Off the streets, in underground communities, performances would bend concepts of gender performance in balls where they walked on cat walks, danced, and were judged by their peers. What soon ensued was ball culture's overwhelming popularity. One of the first interviewees notes the spaces of public and private and the safety that ball culture provided. For young gay men at least, the balls gave them a place where there was no judgement.
What crosses over is homosexual culture and transgender representation, which blurs and stutters through the film (though, not surprisingly, since this was a time that no linguistics really existed to talk about such issues) and some views that might be callous today are said in genuine concern, whether out of sympathy or ignorance.
Beginning in 1987, the film tracks the culture itself, and its odd inclusiveness. Everyone is welcome to walk in the balls, and suddenly the need for more and more genres of competition are created. One short series of vignettes show multiple performers participate in extremely niche sects of the competition while one of the interviewees explains why it is important.
Race is crucial to understanding the culture of "Paris Is Burning" which all posits the idea that these balls are held so that black queer people of this time period could feel as rich as the white people. Wealth was associated with whiteness and thus, to craft their own existence (or maybe even a copy/parody of the 'original' [damn you, Judith Butler]) they participated in these balls.
Jennie Livingston accomplishes something remarkable in a time period when there was little to no queer visibility in the media. Which is another reason "Paris Is Burning" remains so influential—because it lets its subjects tell their own stories...a rarity even in today's media.
The concerns of the movie are still some of the same concerns shared in today's society: from performance of gender to the concept of 'passing'.
As the movie continues to reveal a sect of society that most people are going to be unfamiliar with, it transitions out of the underground and into the everyday life of these performers. It sees them as humans with hopes and dreams, desires for fame and fortune and we know that, just because of how society is, not all of them will survive to see their dreams actualize.
Instead of just accepting this as a possibility or even an inevitability of life, like one of the 'house mothers' interviewed, the film makes one wish there could be a shift in consideration so that these people could accomplish some facet of their dream instead of being marginalized for being both black and queer.
Here, at the point where the intersections weave together, the film departs and the viewer is left considering life in the past, life in the underground, and life in their privilege watching a documentary that people died making.
This is why it has remained so prominent.
Posted by Micah Jones