One of the best reviewed documentaries about gay life has finally found its way to DVD, “Is Paris Burning” by Jenny Livingston. This documentary about gay, black and Hispanic men who are transsexuals or transvestites is absolutely riveting. The beauty of the film is that director Livingston takes a subject that could very easily become a laughing matter and freak show and shows the true humanity of the people in the film. We hear from their mouths their views on being gay, about the people in their lives and those they want in their lives, about what their dreams are and we learn of their disappointments.
This is not a movie about men that dress in female clothing; it is about a marginalized segment of society and the things they do to have a feeling of community. It is a commentary on the materialism in our culture and deals with gender roles, about the differences between the rich and the poor and what the media selects for us, as a culture, to worship. It is very humane and very sad at the same time.
Many of the people in the movie are no longer with us but I have been told that the ballroom scene, as depicted here, is very much alive. Originally released in 1990, the movie is now 17 years old but it is still a revelation. The “vogueing” houses of New York have become an integral part of gay life and have been around for decades. Here is a film that focuses on an aspect of our lives that probably could have gone ignored so the movie has historical importance.
The film begins in 1986 when blacks and Hispanic drag queens held “balls” where they would dress up however they wanted and would display their outfits and be ranked by voting. We get a change to meet the participants and see how they hold together and give each other support. We understand the importance of this communitywhen one says to another, “You have three strikes against you—you’re black, gay and a drag queen”. The only place they seem to be accepted is at their balls. The guys here are well aware of their position in society. They all live in “houses” run by various “mothers” and they each help the other.
The film is most definitely a period piece—the New York of the film is no more but the balls are still held but that same community spirit is gone. In doing research on the film, I learned that Madonna actually got the idea of vogueing from the houses. It seems that the vogue allowed people to fight with each other within the confines of everything but touch which would bring about an automatic disqualification from one of the houses. The vogues were spectacular. It did not matter who you were or where you came from, the moment you entered a house, you entered a magic kingdom and you became bigger than you really were and you were your own creation. Here we see a group of men who embraced their ideals passionately.
“Paris is Burning” is a movie about real people, a real time and a real place but more than that it is a movie about courage—courage to live life the way one wants to live it regardless of consequences. It is not strange that the majority of participants were from minority groups. The theme of behavior modification shows that it was the only way that they could be themselves. We see to what extent a person will go to be accepted in a country that allows racism and homophobia.