The watershed 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning, is well worth seeing or seeing again in its digitally remastered re-issue three decades later. Jennie Livingston’s film, though widely praised, was not nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar, which some attribute to judgment against its subject matter. It was also the period when Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) was waging aggressive moves against publicly funded art that conveyed what he and others deemed as immoral. When she dared to make the film, shot during the years of the 1980s decade, Livingston was boldly defying standards of what was collectively thought of as “normal”. This norm, which held sway at the time, continued into the early ’90s.
Paris is Burning enters the non-Caucasian culture where ballroom drag ruled and flourished gloriously, tucked away from mainstream society. The performers seen in the film are beguiling and bedazzling. Moreover, the film vividly exposes how barriers of class, race, and looks in daily life negatively affected the drag artists and their audience. The ballroom was a safe space where they were free to be themselves and express what was largely not permitted to be expressed in the outside world.
Two takeaways which Paris is Burning is known for: AIDS was devastating communities of color and the gay-bisexual population of New York City. Some of the performers featured are long deceased. The other is how the catwalk posturing technique known as voguing was intrinsic to the ballroom scene before Madonna’s music video to her song, Vogue, became a global hit.
Though Paris is Burning is set in New York, it had a ripple effect in Minneapolis. Indeed, there was certainly a vibrant drag scene here before the 1990s which this writer was closely in contact with, but it really took off in the 1990s. The late Kristin Tillotson reported in it favorably for the Star Tribune which was significant locally.
It was during this time that drag became more widely accepted in the Twin Cities. Curious men who were ostensibly straight, and who today one might even stereotype as “transphobic”, were more likely to go to the bars where drag was expressed and performed. Pre-wedding nights out for heterosexual gal pals squealed to the delights of drag performance. This points to how Livingston’s documentary was valuable in expanding the enjoyment of drag. Straight people “in the know” like Tillotson used their influence to shed light on a misunderstood phenomenon, taking a cue, one might say, from Livingston.
Paris is Burning
Lagoon Cinema, 1320 Lagoon Ave., Minneapolis