'Paris Is Burning' Is An Important Testimony Of Ball Culture That Rightfully Earns Recognition In Film History

June 21 2018

Each Thursday this summer, each week Shadow and Act is revisiting some of the most popular and beloved movies of our time in a special throwback series!

Check out this week's selection below in tribute to the iconic 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning:


Earlier this month, the new series Pose debuted on FX. Created by super producer Ryan Murphy, Pose presents a group of trans women and gay men who are part of the burgeoning underground ball culture of New York City in the 1980s. In one scene of the pilot, one of the main characters, Angel, talks about her hopes and dreams; she wants what many average straight, cis women want: a home, family, money and everything else. Similarly, in Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning, one of its subjects, Venus Xtravaganza, voices the same hopes and dreams. In both cases, the words evoke the same sense of wistfulness and bittersweet longing because both Xtravaganza and Angel are trans women in the late twentieth century and the likelihood they will achieve those dreams is very thin indeed. In fact, we know that Venus Xtravaganza never reached her personal promised land. She was notoriously murdered before the completion of the filming of Paris Is Burning. The point, though is, Pose (at least in its early episodes), bears the unmistakable imprint of the watershed documentary. Even the character Elektra in Pose is very similar to Pepper Labeija, a house mother who appears in Paris Is Burning. The iconic film was also just referenced by Lena Waithe in her speech at the 2018 MTV Movie and TV Awards. 

In a world where history has repeatedly been revised to rob the marginalized of their place in it, Paris Is Burning is essential as a historical document. Ball culture and the dance form voguing that came out of it was created by people marginalized not just by gender identity and sexual preference, but also by class. The community that created this culture and indeed almost all club culture the world over, hail from working-class families. Here, there is also a strong racial component since race is so strongly tied to economic status in racially heterogeneous societies. Historically speaking, time and again culture created by people who are at those intersections has been co-opted and appropriated by those with more money and higher social status. They profit from the culture even as they devalue and try to erase those from which it came. Paris Is Burning stands as a powerful rebuke to anyone who would seek to revise the history of ball culture or vogue dancing into something created by whites, the upper class or any combination of the two. In the same way that roller dancing and disco culture were utterly white-washed in the movies back in the late 1970s and '80s, voguing and ball culture could have also been whitewashed. Paris Is Burning stands as testimony they were created by queer black and brown poor people, creating a significant stumbling block to anyone who wished to create content that would change those optics.

In a 2015 article for the British newspaper The Guardian, Ashley Clark, film critic and senior programmer for cinema at Brooklyn Academy of Music, interviewed Paris Is Burning’s director Jennie Livingston, a queer white woman from a middle-class background. Livingston pointed out that when she made the film, no one was interested in women making movies nor were people mainly interested in seeing queer folk, of any stripe, onscreen. This included the gay community. In a 1991 interview with The Washington Post’s Joe Brown, Livingston stated, “The gay mainstream, which is essentially white and middle-class, doesn't want to be shown as drag queens. They don't want to see them either." Well, Ryan Murphy is about as gay mainstream as they come, and he is now choosing to tell these stories on one of television’s most prominent cable networks. Paris Is Burning is revolutionary and remains relevant in the fight that still rages on today for all women, women of color, queer people and queer people of color to be a part of the process of telling their own stories.

Livingston’s movie also opened the door for examination of gender. Paris Is Burning made people think about gender. In one particularly poignant scene in the film, Willie Ninja, a legend on the ball scene who went on to be a voguing cultural ambassador of sorts, is running a class in which he teaches cis women how to be more feminine.  The viewer is forced to consider if Ninja is a guy who is better at being “feminine” than women. That is the more simplistic, knee-jerk reaction. As Ninja continues to speak, the viewer is pushed to dig a little deeper. Paris Is Burning forces the viewer to get to the heart of the matter; Could it be that “femininity” is not a natural byproduct of outward, physical, sexual characteristics? Is femininity aside from being socially conditioned, a manifestation of individual expression independent of sexual traits?  Ninja and others like him aren’t men who are better at being women. They are merely more feminine beings. Their outward sexual organs have no bearing whatsoever on gender expression.

Paris Is Burning sheds light on the creative process around ball culture itself, citing the social and artistic factors that influenced the scene. Analogous to what was unfolding in the hip-hop scene at the same time, voguing and many elements of the balls are a direct result of the glorification of wealth that exemplify the “greed is good” 1980s. Paris Is Burning illustrates there was a thoughtful, creative dynamic at play. Ball competitors’ study of society, culture and history profoundly informed their choices about costuming and posing. It is because their observations were so trenchant that the culture and the film resonated with larger society at all. The seeming obsession with enormous wealth is also a sad commentary on just how much they intuitively understood they would need to accumulate to even entertain the possibility of escape from the opprobrium of an anti-trans, anti-minority society.

Archie Burnett, a dancer and world-renowned instructor in voguing and waacking, was a famous voguer on the ballroom scene. Also a friend of Willie Ninja, Burnett should be rightly credited for his work in expanding the phenomenon, which started in New York City,  throughout Europe. Burnett, who is a filmmaker in his own right having produced the documentary Check Your Body At The Door about the New York City House Dance scene of the 1990s, told us this about Paris Is Burning. “The thing about Paris Is Burning is that it is that documentary that ultimately gave a worldwide view into this demographic. So it’ll always be about the beginning or the introduction. That has its solid place in history and time. The fact is that documentary gave a certain voice to a demographic that was still relatively taboo, invisible to society.” Paris Is Burning will always be relevant because it was the first. It was the first film to dare to chronicle trans life, and it was the first to showcase ball culture and voguing in all its face beating, duck walking and death dropping glory.

This isn’t to say the film didn’t have its detractors. Burnett points out many people who were part of the scene found the movie problematic at the time of its release. They took issue with the subjects in the film being depicted as being petty thieves or engaging in other types of illegal activity to survive. It is no doubt true of the trans community that most of its members are law-abiding and that the story told in Paris Is Burning is just one of many narratives.  Jill Soloway’s Transparent presents us with a white upper-middle-class take on the trans experience. The Brandon Teena Story provides an impoverished, rural Midwest take, for example. There are plenty of stories to tell, and this is just one of them. Most trans men and trans women don’t have to engage in illegal activity to survive. But statistics show that because they are so marginalized, often being denied employment due to trans discrimination, many often resort to criminal work to survive. The 2014 film Mala Mala does a great job of illustrating the consequences of discriminatory practices regarding employment against working-class trans people of color. Further, Livingston’s film gets its title from the name of the most prominent of the balls, Paris Is Burning, which took place in Harlem and whose participants were primarily working-class and of color. That locates this documentary in a specific position with a very specific demographic, some of whose members who were forced by society to engage in such activity.

Paris Is Burning was an essential first, halting step of American society’s journey toward trans inclusion. Society has since traversed a landscape of awareness, knowledge and tolerance. The trip indeed is nowhere near over, but a show like Pose, which is the logical continuation of a tale begun in Paris Is Burning, attests to its importance. Pose, as a whole, offers a hopeful, defiant, upbeat tone that Paris Is Burning does not. Pose can strike that tone because it stands on the shoulders of those who built the culture that caught Livingston’s eye and made her want to capture it on film.

by Nadine Matthews on June 21 2018

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