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. –Sundance Film Festival
Jennie Livingston' s movie succeeds by just allowing her subjects to be who they are and talk about what they care about. An approach that had proved successful for Earl Morris in GATES OF HEAVEN (though Morris' subjects wandered much farther afield). There's an undercurrent of danger and risk, displacement and isolation that lends an urgency to even seemingly frivolous pursuits.
Before heaping uncritical praise on this doc, read bell hooks' "Is Paris Burning?". hooks throwing shade is far more entertaining than this spectacle tbh.
A fun ride, but also a brutal/bitter one. More than a "fabulous" doc on NYC ball culture, the film provides a brave social commentary on marginalized Black, Latino, gay and transgender communities during the 80's. It depicts exemplarily the strong sense of community between these groups, neglected by their families and forced to survive in a society that does not understand them. A real achievement in Queer Cinema.