Paris Is Burning (1990)

paris is burning poster 1990 movie documentary
9.0 Overall Score

Great look at a world that has both grown and died

Could even be longer

Movie Info

Movie Name:  Paris Is Burning

Studio:  Art Matters Inc./BBC Television/Edelman Family Fund

Genre(s):  Documentary

Release Date(s):  April 6, 1990 (UK)/August 1991 (US)

MPAA Rating:  R

paris is burning dorian corey drag documentary

Got to always look your best

The ball scene is where anybody who is anyone struts their stuff and proves themselves.  In the late 1980s in New York City, the outcasts of society gather in their own little families to show off their struts and poses as part balls that rate and judge drag queens who dare enter them.  While many of the contestants spend their days hidden, the balls are their chance to be free.   Drag culture is alive and the “queens” are taking the stage!

Directed by Jennie Livingston, Paris Is Burning is a documentary film.  The movie was released to positive reviews and often makes “Best Of” lists.  The film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2016, and the Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #1018).

Drag culture has always been a mystery to me because growing up, I always thought the goal was to look the most like a woman.  It isn’t necessarily about looking like a woman, but it is more about attitude, presentation, and style.  While Paris Is Burning doesn’t necessarily clear up all of my questions, it does show how pervasive the culture has become since the documentary was made.

paris is burning ball culture voguing

Vogue…and not in a Madonna way

Much of the culture presented in the film are part of the bigger culture now and like so many other subcultures, it has been co-oped by other groups and people.  From voguing to casting shade to the Houses, some of the bases of drag culture have crossed over and a lot of what made the ball culture special has been homogenized.  It is the nature of the beast.  Smaller groups become absorbed, but they still live.  Drag is such a powerhouse and the people that do it have such pride it is bigger now then when the film was made.

The people covered in the film are both tragic and inspiring, and Livingston tries to let you get to know them.  Most seem to have been on their own and taken in by other older after being cut off by family or society.  They are often poor and struggling…but they have the gatherings and balls to celebrate and hang on to each other.  There is high competition but it is in general friendly (even if sounds contentious).  People like Venus Xtravaganza who is featured and murdered during the course of the documentary demonstrate the danger that still exists today.

paris is burning venus xtravaganza unsolved murder

Venus Xtravaganaza’s murder remains unsolved…

The movie is also an ode to old New York City.  New York City was often dirty and dangerous, but it was welcoming and a true melting pot of different people finding ways to survive.  Most of the people in the movie couldn’t survive in New York City now (even banding together and sharing housing)…it is just too expensive which is kind of sad.

Paris Is Burning is an interesting glimpse into a world that now is as common as reality shows.  It is both good and bad because now it has been commercialized, sold, and marketed to the masses…but probably not benefitting those who created or developed it.  Houses presented in the documentary still exist and the balls still go on…but the world of the movie feels like it is gone.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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