God Save the Queens: "Paris Is Burning" Returns

The landmark documentary about the drag ball scene and voguing battles of 1980s Harlem returns to cinemas in a new restoration.
Bedatri D.Choudhury

Paris Is Burning

Long before RuPaul brought the drag race into our living rooms and even before Madonna asked us to strike a pose in the “Vogue” music video, Crystal LaBeija was a participant in the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Pageant. When she was declared the third runner up, Crystal walked off the stage in a fit of rage because these pageants discriminated against drag queens of color. Even subaltern queer cultural phenomena like drag balls were run on racist rules which kept out queer persons of color. When they did get around to participate, they were asked to lighten their faces. Fed up and angry, Crystal LaBeija founded the legendary House of LaBeija out of a need to create a safe space for queer people of color. This went on to shape the definitive ballroom and voguing culture for queer people of color, which forms the subject of Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. Named after the famous annual drag ball run by drag queen Paris Dupree, Livingston’s documentary chronicles the New York subculture of drag balls and voguing battles of the late-80s Harlem. The film has been recently restored and is being re-released right in time for the 50th-anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

Filmed almost twenty years after the riots, Paris is Burning is a document of New York City and the Black and Hispanic gay men, drag queens and transgender women who live and revel in it in the face of poverty, discrimination, racism, and the incoming epidemic of AIDS. “This is a film about the ball circuit and how each person’s life brought them to this circuit,” says Pepper LaBeija, the legendary mother of House LaBeija. Houses were surrogate families that gay men and transgender women of color chose after their own families disowned them. All the Houses (such as LaBeija, Pendavis, Xtravaganza, Saint Laurent) had mothers like Pepper and Crystal who looked after “children” like Kim Pendavis, Venus Xtravaganza, and so on. This queering of the heteronormative family structures was nothing short of radical as it created bonds of familial love and friendship for people who were pushed to societal margins and were left languishing without any peer support. By creating a sense of belonging, the Houses formed the lineage, legacy and heritage for a community that has been systemically left out of history and its retellings.

Each of the Houses competed for prizes in drag balls under varied categories such as School Girl, Butch Queen, Opulence, Town and Country, Business Executive, Realness and Luscious Body; there was a category for everybody—from the grand old showgirls to the bodybuilders, to the crossdressers, to the fashionistas. For a community disowned not just by the mainstream but also excluded by white queer communities, the balls were a little oasis where queer people of color could dress up and be anything they wanted to be. In the Harlem drag balls, behind the neon sign of the Savoy Manor Ballroom, “you could be anything you want, everything that you could be if you had the opportunity,” Pepper LaBeija’s voiceover says. In a fascinating act of queering gender perceptions, the category of Realness and its sub-categories like Real Schoolgirl, Real Executive, Real Military, judged how easily a queer person could pass as a straight woman or a straight man. In this curious march back to the closet, the queens experimented with ways in which they could completely camouflage their sexual identities and appear exactly as the way society wanted to see them. This fascinating cross-dressing not just exhibited the precision and skill the queens brought to the ball culture but also gave them the power to transcend social barriers of class and race to roleplay professions that almost always were inaccessible to them.

Watching Paris is Burning in 2019 establishes the many ways in which queer and trans subcultures have influenced contemporary mainstream cultures. In the playful drag ball debating style called “Reading”, described as the “real art of insulting” by drag ball veteran Dorian Corey, we see the first signs of spoken word poetry battles. Voguing, as made mainstream by Madonna, also has its roots in the drag balls. The queens, the mothers and the children, inspired by fashion poses in Vogue magazines, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and gymnastic moves evolved a dancing style called voguing that went on to influence what we know as the catwalk. Willi Ninja of House Ninja came to be known as the godfather of voguing who performed in the music video for Malcolm McLaren’s “Deep in Vogue.”

As a character notes, the Houses are to gay men and transwomen what street gangs are to straight men. Instead of street fights, they have balls where they enter dance-offs to win over their opponents and to throw “shade.” In what is probably the most definitive lecture on shade, Corey explains, “I don’t tell you you’re ugly. I don’t have to tell you because you know you’re ugly. That’s shade.” Apart from influencing culture movements, New York’s ball culture also contributed heavily to the language we speak today. One example is, of course, throwing “shade.” As Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer shout out, “Yaas Queen” to one another in the New York-set television show Broad City, they are, possibly unknowingly, paying homage to the drag queens of Harlem.  

When Paris is Burning was released, bell hooks questioned if it was an exercise in voyeurism for Livingston, a white genderqueer lesbian ivy league student, who was essentially intruding upon a community of poor, gay men of color. Her presence in the film is invisible and she speaks from an assumed position of what hooks calls a privileged innocence. For hooks, Livingston’s use of conventional documentary techniques in making the film makes her a “white woman daring to venture into a contemporary "heart of darkness" to bring back knowledge of the natives.” It is interesting to note, in retrospect in 2019, how queer directors of color are portraying trans people of color in shows like Pose and Random Acts of Flyness. Livingston’s filmmaking definitely has its limitations but she was also one of the very few people who had the access and resources to make Paris is Burning, which continues to be an influence for a whole array of artists ranging from RuPaul to Azealia Banks to Steven Canals.

Most importantly, through Paris is Burning, Livingston creates an after-life for the queer icons of the New York ball scene. She builds a memorial to lives to whom (to quote Marsha P. Johnson) nobody promised a tomorrow; she created a legacy of their todays for the people of tomorrow to honor. Livingston celebrates the art and legacy of performers who danced and walked balls in abundant joy and lived lives full of style, laughter, and sass in the face of social isolation and AIDS. The performers in the film are all dead today, mostly from AIDS-related complications, but their words live on: “Pay your dues and enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you,” Dorian Corey says while applying eyeliner thickly on her fake lashes. 

Hooray for her and all the mothers who didn’t need wombs to birth history.

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