Paris Is Burning (1990) dir. Jennie Livingston
Venue: Harrie Massey LT (25 Gordon Street)
Where does voguing come from, and what, exactly, is throwing shade?
This landmark documentary provides a vibrant snapshot of the 1980s through the eyes of New York City’s African American and Latinx Harlem drag-ball scene. Made over seven years, Paris Is Burning offers an intimate portrait of rival fashion ‘houses’, from fierce contests for trophies to house mothers offering sustenance in a world rampant with homophobia, transphobia, racism, AIDS, and poverty. Featuring legendary voguers, drag queens, and trans women — including Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, and Venus Xtravaganza — Paris Is Burning brings it, celebrating the joy of movement, the force of eloquence, and the draw of community.
One of the things that Paris Is Burning makes abundantly clear is that all those queer and trans people who live with hostile rejection from families and society at large is that their vogueing balls are not simply for putting on a show. They are limited-access to an alternate world where simply being who they are is celebrated for the beauty they contain in spades. The documentary peels back an entire sub-society erected by outcasts, yet its burning question, which is insistent despite never being spoken aloud, is why the ‘normal’ world cannot recognize how gorgeous, how proud, how utterly wonderful these people are.
When some of them dream of being fashion models or big stars, they don't speak with naivety; each and every one of them has lived through more by the age of 15 than people like us will have to cope with across a lifetime. But they dream anyway, and the force of their personalities only makes the inability of the fashion world and Hollywood to comprehend the actual reality of such people, instead filtering it through condescending prisms that perpetuate ignorance, more objectionable.
Simultaneously heart-breaking and uplifting - an incredible portrayal of a community so awfully persecuted against. The best part of this is how it gives the voice directly to the subjects without the filmmakers trying to ever butt in or obviously shape the narrative.
"When they're undetectable and they can walk out of that ballroom into the sunlight and onto the subway and get home, and still have all their clothes and no blood running off their bodies – those are the femme realness queens...and usually it's a category for young queens."