Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (1990) is a must-watch for drag fans. Set in the underground scene of ’80s New York ballrooms, the documentary follows drag legends such as Pepper LaBeija and Willi Ninja as they detail what the Harlem ballroom scene entails. Throughout, terms such as ‘throwing shade’ (the art of insulting one another), ‘voguing’ (“performance as a survival strategy”) and ‘realness’ (the now problematic term of looking like a woman) are explained. For devotees of RuPaul’s Drag Race, you will notice that much of RuPaul’s vocabulary and quips originate from Paris Is Burning and the Harlem scene.
The documentary serves as a great educational tool for those unfamiliar with the drag scene. In relation to the current BLM protests, a very relevant scene sees Ninja discuss voguing. He explains that, for black working-class individuals in the LGBT+ community, voguing acts as a means of fighting away from the streets – they can battle without touching, breaking away from stereotypes of violence. Another particularly poignant moment finds trans woman Venus Xtravangaza talking about her plans for the future, dreaming of the suburban fantasy of white American opulence. The following scene cuts to people mourning Venus, whose murder has never been solved. This portrays the dangerous realities many trans people face, with the threat of violence still very much present today.
Upon first glance Paris Is Burning seems an enlightening representation of marginalised people, yet the film – and its director- sadly exploited these individuals. Livingston was ‘white, educated, and therefore more powerful than the drag queens she represented.’ It seems unlikely that members from the scene itself would have been given the same opportunity: if they tried to represent their own culture, they probably would have been silenced or ignored. It is wonderful that we have Paris Is Burning as a document to remember a subculture that has now vanished, but the human lives depicted were left behind once the cameras stopped rolling.
As Jesse Green wrote in a 1993 article for The New York Times, ‘Paris is no longer burning. It has burned. […] Madonna gobbled it up’. This notes on the exploitative nature of Paris is Burning and its aftermath: white women appropriating and benefitting off of the culture of black LGBT+ people. This is the main criticism levelled at the documentary. It filmed the culture and gave it a larger audience, but Madonna took voguing worldwide and Livingston kick-started her own career while few from the culture gained anything. Ninja achieved his dream of becoming an international vogue sensation and some of the drag stars got to join Madonna on tour, but the subculture was largely left in the rear view mirror. Absorbed by the mainstream, many lost one of the few places they could call home.
Paris Is Burning is certainly a rich celebration of drag culture and of its black roots in Harlem. However, its dark side should not be ignored. As LaBeija stated post-filming, “the film came out – nothing. They all got rich, and we got nothing.” This sums up the experience of most of the film’s queens; they were recorded, appropriated by mainstream culture, and then forgotten about. We should be watching Paris Is Burning to celebrate and learn about the harsh realities of the ’80s ballroom scene, but we should also be aware of the exploitation involved in its representation.