Jennie Livingston’s sole feature-length documentary, Paris is Burning, is an intimate look at LGBTQ, African0American, and Latino members of ball culture during the late 1980s in New York City. It is an historically significant documentary about its subset of queer culture, made in an era where such an empathetic, curious movie was a rarity; in fact, it took seven years to film and produce. It is a perfect ethnography in that it neither feels detached from the lives of its subjects nor manipulative toward a particular thesis about them. This is ball culture in this time and place. These are its members. This is what they face. This is what they feel, how they live and why the culture means so much to them. These are the families formed, their rituals, their language. Joys and sorrows. Poverty and success.
Controversies have arisen from Paris is Burning, such as questions of whether Livingston got more out of its relative success than her subjects or whether she presented their participation as a promise of something more. It’s not really possible to litigate those in a review, but as someone who had not seen (or heard of) Paris is Burning, it was a mind-blowing, positive experience. Maybe it just feels good to learn something new. In only 78 minutes, Livingston and the participants fully express their culture and the subcultures within. Their lived experiences are never minimized in service of creating an entertaining picture.
Broader themes come into view: The American standards for beauty, which are both sought after and subverted in ball culture. The lives of marginalized youths who found / find family among other members of their houses. The use of dance as a way of solving feuds between participants. How older members view the priorities of younger members and vice-versa in terms of material aims and fashion.
Thirty years have passed since Paris is Burning was released — frankly, almost my entire life — and thus there is an element of, “Oh, that’s where that came from” while watching it. Concepts like shade or Voguing. Elements of drag culture. Styles of dance and music. All of these have, to some extent, become mainstreamed or at least adopted (appropriated?) online over the past three decades, particularly in certain circles. Influential for bearing witness to marginalized voices at a time when LGBTQ issues were far from the forefront of political discussion, Paris is Burning feels no less relevant today when, despite great gains, the fight still continues.
Paris is Burning is now available through the Criterion Collection. Although it is also available to stream on Netflix, this release includes a pristine new transfer, as well as numerous special features, including over an hour of outtakes (almost as long as the film itself), interviews with Livingston and members of the ball community and promotional material from the time of the film’s release.