This Sundance prize-winning documentary is an intimate portrait of 1980s Harlem drag balls: a world of fierce competition, sustenance, and survival.
Director: Jennie Livingston
Information Page: https://www.newonnetflix.info/info/60036691
While watching 2015’s Kurt Cobain documentary “Montage of Heck”, I was struck by the cautionary subtext about the pitfalls of non-fiction filmmaking. In that case, the suggestion that the most compelling documentary subjects are rarely those who would want their “story” plastered up on the big screen. In the case of “Paris is Burning”, the cautionary tale becomes the overexposure of underground subcultural safe spaces.
Jennie Livingstone’s award-winning 1990 documentary centres on a community of African American and Latino drag queens who congregate in Harlem, New York to put on grand balls, in which contestants strut their stuff for the whooping crowds. Most of the participants belong to a “house”, as they compete in a variety of categories and are judged for their outfit, their dance moves and their “realness” (how well they pass as straight), among other things.
My use of quotation marks gives you a fair idea of just how far removed this is from both my personal experience and the orthodoxy of mainstream culture. In this regard, “Paris is Burning” stands out as one of the most educational documentaries I’ve ever seen. Livingstone introduces pages of co-opted terminology and chronicles the emergence of “voguing”, a dance technique that evolved out of the Harlem scene before hitting the mainstream with the release of Madonna’s music video.
However, the truths at the heart of this film are universal. These fabulous subjects, and the energetic community to which they belong, promote values of acceptance, love and support, without ever resorting to self-righteous preaching. And, while the film’s melancholy epilogue addresses the neutering effect of cultural exposure and the dangers that lie just beneath the surface of these glamorous meet-ups, the overriding sense is one of boundless joie de vivre in the face of an adverse establishment. Pretty timely, wouldn’t you say?
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