I am frequently late to things. It’s an unlikable quality, and certainly one of my many faults of character, but — and get this on record — on the night of the Paris is Burning screening, I definitely arrived early. Unfortunately, I arrived too early and the event had not even begun.
This gave my sister and me the misguided belief that we had enough time to go outside and smoke a joint before the film started. A half-gram of Lemon Haze later, we were awkwardly manoeuvering between the rows of seats, disturbing those enjoying the already in-progress screening. Tentatively, we took our seats and began watching.
Director Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning is a documentary that highlights the New York City ballroom culture of the 1980s, and features some of Harlem’s pioneering gay and transgender performers, including the late Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Octavia St. Laurent, and Venus and Angie Xtravaganza.
Filmed over the course of seven years, Paris is Burning is composed of interviews with drag ball participants and shows their lives both in and out of drag. Having never seen the film — as I said before, I am consistently late to the party — I didn’t know what to expect.
What struck me most about the film is how honest and personal it felt. It shows the performative aspects of ball culture, the balls, the artists at the top, and in the case of some ball newcomers, bottom of their game. But it also shows the behind-the-scenes work: the reality of creating outfits and putting on makeup, how these artists came to the community, and their nuanced reflections on why and how their world is the way it is.
Consequently, it shows artists that are forced to live lives that are inherently politicized and that exist outside the safety of the mainstream, regardless of whether they would prefer, as Venus Xtravaganza puts it, “a nice home, away from New York,” or “a normal, happy life,” as Octavia St. Laurent describes.
After listening to the panel that occurred directly after the screening, I decided to do a little bit of research of my own. The drag queen Dorian Corey explained that “the fact that you are not an executive is really because of the social standing of life. That’s just a pure thing. Black people have a hard time getting anywhere. And those that do are usually straight.” She expands that these harsh realities are created from a world that needs fixing, which is illustrated during Paris is Burning by the presentation of the joy of ball culture. The balls act as a space where these external rules do not exist.
Corey continued, “In a ballroom, you can be anything you want. You’re not really an executive but you’re looking like an executive, and therefore you’re showing the straight world that I can be an executive. If I had the opportunity I could be one.”
The film is not without fault. Albeit a member of the LGBTQ+ community herself, Livingston was a white, Yale-educated woman who was far removed from Harlem’s ball scene. This gives the film a somewhat voyeuristic feeling, and at times it can feel almost like an instructional video for straight, cisgender audiences who have never heard of a drag ball.
However, in the decades since, this stylization can be appreciated less as a tool for a biased mainstream to gawk at an unfamiliar world, and instead as a way for LGBTQ+ youth, such as myself, to understand our history and how the community has changed. In this way, I see the film as less of a documentary, and more of a biography — a literal record of the lives of the artists who have passed, and an artifact of the shared heritage of a chosen family.
I’ve found that this heritage is also important to the panelists at the film screening, consisting of drag artists Luna DuBois, ZacKey Lime, and The Ugly One, moderated by Courtney Conquers.
ZacKey Lime chimed in, referring to watching Paris is Burning. “If you’re starting drag it should be mandatory learning.”
With regard to how he got into drag, or his “origin story” as he puts it, ZacKey Lime recalled volunteering at pride and discovering the drag king art form: “I had zero idea this whole community existed. And I was like, ‘oh… that looks really cool.’ And I think I let that simmer in my brain for a few months. And then I just remember being on YouTube, searching drag kings and drag king makeup all night.”
Conversely, fellow panelist Luna DuBois originally began drag “for shits and giggles,” but became progressively more involved in the community, and now works primarily in Toronto’s Church-Wellesley village. Although she’s not an extremely active member of Toronto’s ball community, Luna DuBois has also walked balls, and commented that the scene is still “quite active” and “inclusive,” although she acknowledged that it is more difficult to join if you’re not familiar with the various cultures at hand.
“Vogue is an expression, expressing feeling, emotion [about] telling a story… [Don’t go in] ignorant, and if you are ignorant, you should ask questions.”
The Toronto drag scene is unanimously agreed upon to be a ‘rise and grind’ type of community, as Courtney Conquers calls it. At the panel, The Ugly One commented that they had done 14 numbers and four costume changes just the previous night. This is characteristic of the Toronto-specific “marathon drag” style, in which performers go on in quick succession.
The skill and artistry that goes into drag performance should not be ignored, which is why it is important to remember that the great artists of Paris is Burning are not the filmmakers behind it, but the subjects themselves. What makes Paris is Burning great isn’t the cinematography or the editing of the film itself; it’s Venus Xtravaganza saying “overgrown orangutan,” Willi Ninja’s perfected vogueing, Pepper LaBeija’s costume design, and Octavia St. Laurent’s model walk.
With that in mind, at its core, Paris is Burning is a film about family. It shows us that a drag ball ‘house’ is a family for those who don’t have a one, or for those whose families have rejected them. As Corey said, “It wasnt a question of a man and a woman and children, which we grew up knowing as a family. It’s a question of a group of human beings in a mutual bond.”
This is what makes Paris is Burning special — the little moments of connectedness that it finds between the injustices of the world. It is a group of friends laughing on a pier in Manhattan, making jokes and running through the night. It is friends dancing around a boom box, with the rumble of traffic against the sound. It is two girls on the shore, playing chicken with the tide.
Most importantly, it is a group of people loving each other unconditionally, without fail, calling each other sisters and brothers. As the unnamed teen from Paris is Burning said, smiling to the camera in the dead of night, “Oh, that’s my sister. Because she’s gay, too.”