Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning is a rare, special kind of documentary that also actively engages with the beautiful individuals upon which it focuses. As I’ve stated a few times before, my favorite types of docs are the ones that cover individuals who hold very specific interests, views, and (in this case) identities, momentarily inviting us into a glimpse at their lives so very different from ours. The focal point of Paris is Burning lies on the Harlem drag balls of the 1980s, which served as a creative outlet for queer/trans folks. One of the more bittersweet elements of the documentary is watching it with the 21st century mindset of these coalitions being long gone, something truly defined by its time, place, and every facet surrounding it.
In a world where voices of LGBTQ folks are silenced and marginalized to make room for more privileged ideals, Paris is Burning forces these voices into front-and-center, thereby revealing a more liberated perspective of an often vilified demographic. It assumes that viewers are either oblivious toward drag balls or have been wrongfully educated by popular media, thereby working to embrace its beauty through a collection of colorful individuals who know this lifestyle better than anyone else. Moreover, most of these people are, not only in strict deviation of the cishet norm, but also people of color, further setting themselves apart from the oppressive white patriarchal ideals in the most vibrant ways. To set across this point, it even juxtaposes images of wealthy, white business-people in suits; the effect is a darkly comedic one, as the celebration of these balls seem to completely defy this idealistic American dream.
And a celebration it surely is. It seems as though this is as full of a submergence into a specific subculture that one is certain to get from a physical documentary. Because Paris is Burning does more than just “document” its subjects – it allows them to explain the culture in which they live, from the rules to the lingo to the background stories of its participants. Many of the token players of these masquerades give off a contagious aura of being celebrities themselves, if not in real life then at least within the context of the film. We are compelled to follow them, know their lives, sympathize in their tragedies, admire their strengths and talents, and revel in their victories, as minuscule as they may be. Among all this, nowhere can a white/cishet voice or gaze be found – and given the nature of the film’s material, this is how it should be and I only wish more movies of similar themes would follow suit.
Paris is Burning is one of the most beautiful documentaries I have ever seen. I doubt there is any way of knowing if Jennie Livingston had any inkling of what kind of impact her film would have on so many individuals. My guess is that her intent was not as an invitation for outsiders to dwell upon this culture in gross fascination and othering, but in concern for the dignity and safety individuals like the ones in this film. There are a few moments in Paris is Burning where viewers are dragged out of their own comfort zone with the harsh reminder that bigotry and violence against LGBTQ folks are very much pressing and tragic issues that such people must confront every day of their lives. The fact that every major player in the film has now deceased – many at a very young age – is a jarring reminder of the blatant unfairness of such a society that works toward the systematic depletion of such beautiful individuals. Livingston has made a great effort in capturing the importance of safe spaces, set apart from the mainstream world which has done them great harm. This cis-female writer could never utilize the magic of this film to its full potential, but Paris is Burning may very well be the work of art that offers the much-needed glimmer of hope for those who can.