I watched Paris Is Burning last night and have spent all day today agonizing over how to convince you that it’s worth seeing if you haven’t gotten around to it yet. Maybe the five stars I gave it will help? I’d also like to tell you it’s easy to stream on the Criterion Channel right now. Maybe if I include that it’s only 78 minutes long that might sweeten the deal? I just don’t want to come on too strong. Because what I really want to lead with is Paris Is Burning is without a doubt one of the most beautiful, moving documentaries about life in America I’ve ever seen. And I know that lofty proclamations like that get movies added to queues but then it takes something like a Criterion Month to convince us to actually watch them.
Paris Is Burning explains and chronicles New York ballroom scene as it was in the late 1980s (the documentary’s title comes from one such ball). These are events where contestants, mostly African American and Latinx queer people, would compete equally for trophies and glory by “walking” (like a runway model) in a variety of different categories. Some of the walks we see in Paris Is Burning include High Fashion Winter Sportswear, Executive Realness, and Upcoming Pretty Girl 1986. Performance and attitude is obviously a huge part of it, but so are the beauty of their clothing and how much realness they’re serving. It’s really fun to watch.
Remember the speech from The Devil Wears Prada about the blue sweater? The way that Miranda talks about how cerulean proliferated its way through culture is kind of also the experience of seeing how the fashion industry and pop culture in general leeched out of ball culture. For one, the amount of slang that is now commonly used is staggering. Perhaps the most notorious example of this is “voguing,” since right after this movie was shot Madonna stole it, but contemporary definitions of words like werk, realness, reading, throwing shade, receipts, and legendary all started here. That’s part of what makes it fun to watch this documentary, it feels really good to be invited into such an amazing, exciting, game-changing little world.
But the ballroom scenes are mixed in with interviews with some of the biggest personalities at them, and that’s how this story expands both in scope and emotional impact. They are not a monolith, we see a wide swatch of ages, backgrounds, genders, and sexualities each with their own motivation for wanting to walk. Some of them are chasing the high of fame, a chance to be fashionable and feel like a model whether or not they actually believe they’ll be given that chance in the straight world. Others walk to prove a point, like in the Executive Realness category, where they try to prove that the only difference between them and Wall Street fat cats is opportunity. And, unfortunately, it’s obvious that some people walk because it’s an escape from a harsh world.
To quote Wikipedia, which was quoting director Jennie Livingston, Paris Is Burning is “about how we’re all influenced by the media; how we strive to meet the demands of the media by trying to look like Vogue models or by owning a big car. And it’s about survival. It’s about people who have a lot of prejudices against them and who have learned to survive with wit, dignity and energy.” People like that are worth listening to, worth learning about, and worth celebrating. Because let me tell you, I’ve done some googling and their is A LOT of tea to spill about these queens that I’ll save for a more spoiler friendly time and place. Until then, please watch this thing as soon as you can. It’s great.