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In the beginning of this film, one of the commentators says that he was told
that he has two strikes against him: he is black and male. But in addition
to that, he has a third strike: he's gay. "You're going to have to be
stronger than you ever imagined," he is told. "Paris is Burning" is a
documentary about gay black and Hispanic men who are tranvestites or
The miracle of "Paris is Burning" is that director Jennie Livingston takes a subject that could have very easily become a freak show and allows the people in it their humanity. We learn their views of homosexuality, men, women, their hopes, their disappointments, their dreams. Some of these dreams are so unattainable it's tragic. Many of the people are seriously in denial;
This is not a film for everyone. There are shots in this movie of nude transsexuals. If you have a problem with homosexuality, then this movie isn't for you. But if you do see this movie you'll realise "Paris is Burning" isn't really about men wearing women's clothes, it's about a group of people who are routinely marginalised and put down by society at large, and what they do to get a sense of community in their lives.
I've watched this movie four times since it was released in 1991, because it says so many things: it's a commentary about materialism in our culture, about gender roles, about rich and poor people, about the media and what it celebrates, about fame and adulation. "Paris is Burning" is one of the most humane, and one of the saddest, movies I've ever seen.
While many unfortunately passed on, the ballroom scene is still very much alive and carrying on their legacy. Some are still very much alive and quite well, Octavia is more radiant and beautiful than ever, Willi Ninja is very accomplished and gives a great deal of support to the gay community as a whole, Pepper Labeija just passed on last year of natural cause, may she rest in peace. After Anji's passing Carmen became the mother of the house of Xtravaganza (she was in the beach scene) and she is looking more and more lovely as well. Some balls have categories dedicated to those who have passed, may they all rest in peace. There is currently another project underway known as "How Do I Look?", you can check out the website at www.howdoilooknyc.org.
First of all I am a butch, straight white male. But even with that handicap I love this movie. It's about real people. A real time and place. And of course New York City in the 80's. I had many gay friends growing up in New York in the eighties and the one thing about them i always admired was their courage to live their lives the way they wanted to live them. No matter what the consequences. That's courageous. You have to admire that. This is a great film, watch it and take in what it was like to be a flamboyant African American or Hispanic Gay man in the New York of the eighties. It's real life. Bottom line it's real life.
Documentary starts in 1986 in NYC where black and hispanic drag queens
hold "balls". That's where they dress up however they like, strut their
stuff in front of an audience and are voted on. We get to know many of
the members and see how they all hold together and support each other.
As one man says to another--"You have three strikes against you--you're
black, gay and a drag queen". These are people who (sadly) are not
accepted in society--only at the balls. There they can be whoever and
whatever they want and be accepted. Then the film cuts to three years
later (1989) and you see how things have changed (tragically for some).
Sounds depressing but it's not. Most of the people interviewed are actually very funny and get a lot of humor out of their situations. They're well aware of their position in society and accept it with humor--just as they should. We find out they all live in "houses" run by various "mothers" and all help each other out. The sense of community in this film is fascinating.
When this film came out in 1990 it was controversial--and a big hit. It won Best Documentary Awards at numerous festivals--but was never even nominated for an Academy Award. Their reason was "Black and hispanic drag queens are not Academy material". Fascinating isn't it? Homophobia and racism all together.
Seen today it's still a great film--and a period piece. It just isn't like that anymore--the NY they show no longer exists. The balls are still held but not in the spirit we see here. Also drag has become more "accepted" in society (for better or worse). And I've heard the houses are gone too. That's kind of sad. I WOULD like to know where these characters are now--I know two died of AIDS but I have no idea about the others. And what DID happen to that 13 year old and 15 year old shown?
Still, it a one of a kind documentary--fascinating, funny and riveting. A must see all the way! A definite 10. Where's the DVD???
This film came out 12 years years ago, and was a revelation even for
who knew something of the drag scene in New York. The textbooks on drag
performance say nothing of these vogueing houses. Anthony Slide's 'Great
Pretenders' says nothing. Julian Fleisher's "The Drag Queens of New
An Illustrated Field Guide" with its flow chart of influence that pulls
together Julian Eltinge, Minette, the Warhol queens, and the 90s club
- and postdates the film - ignores the houses completely. Even Laurence
Senelick's "The Changing Room" - the closest thing that we have to a
definitive book on drag performance rushes quickly past the film and does
not give the background information that one would have expected from
I understand from the film itself,and various articles I found on the web that this house system goes back decades. The major film performance by a house member prior to 1990 seems to be Chrystal La Beija in "The Queen", 1968. The historical context is the biggest missing part of "Paris is Burning".
The film is valuable because it focuses on a scene otherwise being ignored. It is a valuable snapshot of life in 1989. The unfortunate fact that Venus Xtravaganza was murdered during filming provides a very dramatic ending, but this is not the only film about transsexuals to include a real-life murder. As we now know, Dorian Corey had a mummified corpse in her literal closet, but this did not come out until three years later.
Of historical importance, but we still need someone to do either a book or a documentary film that provides more context.
An excellent documentry. I personally remember this growing up in NYC in the early 80's. This movie is for anyone that wasn't around during that time period.This shows the one thing the African American Gay Underclass felt was solely theirs and the love and camadrie you see is real. The people are real and sadly few are still alive as this is being written. The balls are still held but not to the extent that they were in the the nineteen eighties. That time is gone forever. This is a good pre "homo thug" movie. When Queens were really proud to be extroverts. Goodbye to Storyville this is another era gone but greatly documented all hail film!
I will confess that I had no idea what I was walking into when I saw
it. At the time, I was between jobs and seeing every movie I could. It
was either that-or look for a job!
Remember seeing the title and thinking it was about WW2, Hitler, etc. Of course, once the movie started, I was surprised.
It was a very cool movie. I don't think it matters if you're straight, gay, or somewhere in between. It opened my eyes to a whole new sub-culture I never knew existed. What I saw was a group of men very passionate about something in their lives. Fascinating to watch them transform their appearance.
Sad to see how their families didn't accept them or when there was a death of one of the principals. I remember they showed one of the actors truly depressed b/c his family (maybe his father) tossed all of the clothes he had collected. Outside of the monetary value, he really had pride in all that he had amassed over the years.
I left thinking I wouldn't want to try it, but I thought it would be very fun to attend one of these balls.
I just saw this movie again for the first time since it came out. It's so
much sadder now. You feel you're watching these people as they once were,
over 10 years ago, when they still had hopes and dreams that by now have
probably dwindled to nothing. I read somewhere that most of those profiled
died within 4 years, principally from AIDS. I'd love to know what happened
to them all. I think Willie Ninja, the most resourceful, clever &
self-respecting of the group, is still somewhat successful as a
to give folks an update on the individuals interviewed in "Paris Is
Burning", Angie Xtravaganza, Dorian Corey & just last year(or early
this year?), Pepper LaBeija all passed-away, unfortunately. ...they
will all be missed.:(
Willi Ninja's still on the performing scene. ...as is Sade Pendavis(from my understanding). ..i'm not sure what has become of the rest of the cast, though.
to this day, i watch this film as if it's the first time seeing it....i, personally, would like Ms. Livingston to make a follow-up film, catching back-up with the surviving individuals....as i'm sure a good many of you would like to see as well.;)
Growing up in NYC in the late 80's/early 90's club-scene, I can personally say this is one of the most important documentaries made in covering that place in this time period. No Madonna did not come up with the idea of Voguing but this is where she got it from! Instead of taking out violence on each other or in bitchy cat fights, voguing allowed people to "fight" within the confines of everything short of touching each other (which would warrant an automatic disqualification). Seeing these kind of extraordinarily talented/well orchestrated "throw-downs" in the clubs was nothing short of spectacular and all the big names from back in the day are here...Pepper La Beija, Paris Duprée,Xtragavaganza, etc...all commemorated in the likes of such period-pieces as Malcom McLaren's song "Deep in Vogue"...it didn't matter who you were, or where you were from because when you walked through those doors into this "magic kingdom" of sorts, you became part of something bigger than yourself/you were important/and most importantly the creation of your own moves and imagination...and anybody from anywhere could become King (or Queen) as the case may have been. The words and wit were just as sharp as the moves on the floor. All of the tension, excitement, and magic of that very urban NYC energy is captured in this film. BRILLIANT!!! PLEASE RELEASE ON DVD for the world to see!!! Thank You!
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