Film Review: PARIS IS BURNING (USA 1990) ***1/2

Paris Is Burning Poster
A chronicle of New York’s drag scene in the 1980s, focusing on balls, voguing and the ambitions and dreams of those who gave the era its warmth and vitality.

A gay friend of mine told me once.  When you have a group of gay males around a whole wardrobe of dresses and make-up, the inevitable happens.  They will dress up as women in the dresses, put on the makeup and do drag.  This explains the fascination of gays doing drag to the extent that for many, their entire lives as demonstrated in the film, depends on.

PARIS IS BURNING began as Livingston’s student film project that involved interviews with key figures in the ball world.   Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Angie Xtravaganza, and Willi Ninja are a few of the interviewees.  These figures share experiences on their life stories, on gender roles, gay and ball subcultures. 

Ball is explained in the film as the event where drag queens compete.  Other terms like house, voguing, shade, reading and legendary are also amusingly explained.  Many of the contestants vying for trophies are representatives of houses that serve as their families, social groups and performance teams.  Some of those names include Extravaganza, St. Laurent and others.

The doc took 6 years or so in the making due to the difficulty of attaining funds.  Though the film is only 78 minutes, it had been cut from over 70 hours of footage material.

Director Livingston does not appear or speak during the film except for a few instances the she can be heard.

The film contains a very touching moment which is exploited for good use at the end of the film.  The scene has two kids, barely16 with their arms around each other in love, as if nothing else in the world matters.  It brings out what true innocent young love is.  And no one can take away that!

PARIS IS BURNING, a film well ahead of its time, got generally excellent reviews from critics when it first opened.  It also went on to win many film awards though it failed to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary which implies that certain topics were excluded in the Academy’ choice of films nominated. 

The film has got a 2K restoration and opens just in time for Pride Toronto.  The film is just as timely then as is now.




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