They call themselves "The Children." They are black and Latino, part of the New York under class, and they are homosexual. They are absolutely marginal to the mainstream of society (indeed they are often rejected by their own families due to their sexuality). The Children belong to "Houses"—for example, The House of Chanel, The House of Saint Laurent and the House of Ninja—surrogate families which offer emotional, creative, and even financial support. But the focus of their lives is the Balls. The Harlem "Drag Queen" Balls are parades of House members who compete for trophies and cash prizes. These events take the form of "voguing," which combines break dancing, gymnastics, assuming attitudes, and striking the poses of fashion magazines. A cross between theatre and performing, the balls are engrossing to watch. At the same time, they raise questions about the nature of the identities or life-styles the performers assume: "Pretty Girl," "Schoolboy," "Town and Country," "Dynasty," "Military," "High Fashion," "and "Executive Realness."
There's a real emotional quality to the Balls, both a poignancy and an exhibitionist exuberance which touches us and at the same time is distant and theatrical. Livingston has spent over three years assembling the footage, and doing the interviews which comprise this document, and her stylish direction betrays no sign of superiority or condescension. Paris is Burning is finally a tribute to these "outcasts," to their ingenuity and perseverance, and ultimately to their strength. They've converted a world of empty images from fashion and advertising into their own statement of self and soul.
For those who think Broad City popularized the now ubiquitous cry, “Yasss Queen,” you are sorely mistaken. Paris is Burning, a controversial canonical documentary, brought the lexicon and culture of the drag scene to the foreground in the early nineties. Director Jennie Livingston countered the erasure of trans and queer identities by delving deep into the world of Balls, where gender is a construct and vogueing is on display. Deemed exploitative and voyeuristic by some, Paris is Burning celebrated a subculture that has now been gobbled up by mainstream media (think Rupaul's Drag Race). But before the drag scene was a commercial success, it was a space of cultural survival and collective support for gay men of color. David France’s recent hit, The Life and Death of Martha P. Johnson, and Livingston’s Paris is Burning, solicited similar critiques from audiences; this is not your story to tell. And while there is truth to that, it is undeniable that Paris is Burning helped to create space for more gender nonconforming voices in front of the camera.
“I think women directors step away from talking about our place in the industry, both because any mention of it labels you as a harridan or a bitch or a troublemaker and also because if you think about it too much, you might have some trepidation or fearfulness about the small space you already occupy. Unfortunately, and ironically, that we don’t do this more actively, that we don’t have the power or the courage to do it — or that we rightly think we may not be allowed to talk openly about these things and continue to work — has slowed down the process of changing the situation. It’s a conundrum: We can’t change it ourselves, but no one can change it but us.”
—Jennie Livingston, interviewed in The New York Times on being a woman filmmaker, 2015