Paris Is Burning is a 1990 documentary film directed by Jennie Livingston. Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, it chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the African American, Latino, gay and transgender communities involved in it. Many members of the ball culture community consider Paris Is Burning to be an invaluable documentary of the end of the “Golden Age” of New York City drag balls, as well as a thoughtful exploration of race, class, and gender in America.
Drag balls, the product of a poor, gay and mostly nonwhite culture, had been held in Harlem since the 1920’s. But it wasn’t until Jennie Livingston’s award-winning documentary, “Paris Is Burning,” was released in 1991 that anyone outside that world knew much about them.
Jennie Livingston, who never went to film school and who spent seven years making Paris Is Burning, concentrated on interviews with key figures in the ball world, many of whom contribute monologues that shed light on the ball culture as well as on their own personalities. In the film, titles such as “house,” “mother,” and “reading” emphasize how the subculture the film depicts has taken words from the straight and white worlds, and imbued them with alternate meanings, just as the “houses” serve as surrogate families for young ball-walkers whose sexual orientations have sometimes made acceptance and love within their own families hard to come by.
The film also documents the origins of “voguing”, a dance style in which competing ball-walkers freeze and “pose” in glamorous positions (as if being photographed for the cover of Vogue). Pop star Malcolm McLaren would, two years before Paris Is Burning was completed, bring the phenomenon to the mainstream with his song “Deep In Vogue”, which sampled the movie and directly referenced many of the stars of Paris Is Burning including Pepper Labeija and featured dancers from the film including Willi Ninja. The single went to number 1 in the US Billboard Dance Chart. One year after this, Madonna released her number one song Vogue, bringing further attention to the dancing style.
Most of the main scene members featured in the film have died of various causes. The film is an impacting portrayal of the survival of minorities and society’s outcasts. Their creativity is inversely proportional to their access to resources of all types. They were true heroes of everyday life. Whatever they lack in real life they created with their imagination with larger than life costumes and attitudes. Here at “The Remains” we want to pay humble homage to them with this post.