You may have never seen Paris Is Burning, but I’m willing to bet that your lexicon is shaped by it. Words like “shade,” “realness,” “over,” “work,” and “reading” have become popular in contemporary queer culture, and while you may credit their existence to RuPaul’s Drag Race, you’d be mistaken. Those words—and many others like them—spawned from the ballroom scene, which originated in New York City.
Jennie Livingston’s 1990 (nearly 20 years before Drag Race) documentary debut, Paris is Burning, is the film that brought ballroom culture to the mainstream and changed queer culture forever, even if you never heard of it before.
The film, named after an annual ball in New York City, is a radical celebration of queer community, resilience, and euphoric joy. From the moment Pepper LaBeija struts into the ball, dressed in fabulous golden couture, it is ovah. A portrait of magnificence, LaBeija walks to a cornucopia of cheers and delightful screams as people root for her as if she was the most powerful celebrity in the world. As one person puts it, “I went to a ball, got a trophy, and now everybody wants to know me.”
What exactly is a ball, you may be wondering? It’s best described by one of the many people interviewed in Paris Is Burning, who says, “It’s like crossing into the looking glass. You go in there and you feel 100% right with being gay.” Ballroom culture spawns from queer Black and Latino culture, creating spaces for those on the margins of society to be celebrated for being their authentic selves. Ball competitions feature a huge array of categories, often surrounding the idea of “realness”—serving a fantasy, whether it’s butch queen, femme, or executive realness.
As Dorian Corey explains in the film: “In a ballroom, you can be anything you want. You’re not really an executive … your peers, your friends, are telling you you could be an executive.” But balls deliver something impossible to find in the 70s, 80s, and 90s for queer and marginalized people, and that’s a sense of community and belonging.
One participant says, “A ball is to us, the closest we’re gonna get to all that fame and fortune, and stardom and spotlights.” In balls, queer people could come together and be celebrated unapologetically and feel like the famous people they could never be in heteronormative society—though you better believe that, like in any competition, the claws are bound to come out. Still, fierce competition doesn’t prove a barrier in this celebratory documentary.
Paris is Burning thrums with energy. It’s vivacious and a sheer joy to watch unfold. It is so rare to see queer lives (especially trans folk) through such a victorious lens, but Livingston’s film is an unabashed celebration of a defiant queer culture. That’s not to say it’s a film with its head in the clouds, as Paris Is Burning isn’t afraid to shy away from the challenging aspects of these people’s lives; many are homeless, abandoned by their birth families, and are targets in everyday society. But in the film’s best moments, in a full-blown celebration of ballroom culture, these beautiful individuals stifled by societal pressure are entirely uninhibited. Watching them come alive and feel free is one of the greatest gifts a film can offer.
Paris is Burning would be nothing without the subjects Livingston interviews. Larger-than-life characters like Pepper LaBeija, Willi Ninja, and Dorian Corey light up the screen, delivering harsh truths and nuggets of wisdom that contextualize the incredible world of ballroom to great effect. The film is a rainbow of different lives and experiences, giving Paris is Burning a rich diversity that feels like a complete picture of a culture, even if it’s only a breezy 70 minutes long.
While in many ways, Paris is Burning follows a traditional documentary structure, Livingston subtly defies expectations. There’s often a natural order in a documentary where you see the person talking, and it’s clear who’s speaking. But when Livingston’s camera focuses on the indefinable magic of the ball scene, all bets are off. It’s a cacophony of noise, and the straightforward sound of documentary filmmaking goes out the window to make way for a euphoric queer celebration. It’s a chaotic but immersive and brilliant choice that gives Paris Is Burning vitality.
Another staple of the documentary is the talking head—moments where a subject is interviewed on camera. Most modern documentaries film these scenes as straightforwardly as possible, with no distractions, simply a person in the center of the frame. But in Paris Is Burning, talking heads are elevated. Livingston interviews most of her subjects in their own homes. The homes are so full of intrigue that they’re practically characters, providing valuable context to these people’s lives.
The dark, moody colors in Dorian Corey’s place give a sense of foreboding like time is slipping away. It’s a different story for Pepper LaBeija, whose talking heads are often peppered with her house children in the background, enforcing the power of queer community. Octavia St. Laurent’s bedroom is adorned with aspirational posters of models she adores, several of which are pictures of Paulina Porizkova, who she longs to be like one day—a sharp contrast to her looking forlorn at a model casting session. The most compelling is Venus Xtravaganza, who sits in her bedroom, an aching sense of loneliness conveyed through the sparse nature of the room.
Thanks to their unique settings, the interviews in the film have a real sense of intimacy that allows them to feel as if we’re at home with friends. Paris Is Burning invites us to see these people, not in sparse soundstages but living their everyday lives, and the effect is hugely effective. Plus, queer homes are fabulous, and Paris Is Burning celebrates this undeniable fact.
Through all the euphoria, Paris Is Burning ends in heartbreak. Fast-forwarding to 1989, there’s a sense that the ballroom scene is shifting and that something has been lost. That sense of loss is literalized through the devastating reveal that Venus Xtravaganza, last seen talking about how she wants nothing more than to live an everyday, happy life and be appreciated for who she is, was murdered. The news is delivered by her house mother, Angie Xtravaganza, who tells us Venus is no longer with us.
One of the film’s last images is beautifully composed—Venus stands, cigarette in hand, on the pier at night, fiddling with a boombox. She smiles tentatively at the camera as if looking directly into our souls. It’s a gorgeous image: a vivid portrait of a life bursting with potential, no longer thanks to prejudice and hatred towards trans people, which still haunts our communities today. Paris Is Burning is as essential as ever—perhaps even more so today than in 1990. It’s a film that celebrates the breadth of the queer community and our extraordinary ability to find and support one another, no matter the circumstance. Ballroom culture continues to thrive, and the children keep shutting it down.