Paris is Burning is, without question, a legendary piece of cinema. To speak on excellent documentaries and skip this one shows the many issues with any type of film study class. I say this since, often, films featuring people of color are looked over and not mentioned when it comes to said classes. You’d sooner hear the name Quentin Tarantino before Spike Lee, and I’m sure you would find someone note any of Michael Moore’s productions before Paris is Burning. What are the reasons? I can’t say, but I must share with you a review of this film.
Like most documentaries, there are people featured in the film and others play supporting roles. For Paris is Burning, the focus is on the “Mothers” of the houses and a select few of their children. Each mother has a different personality which you find yourself drawn to in one way or the other. Pepper Labeija of the House of LaBeija could be considered a more refined version of the queer people usually exploited on TV. Of course, though, as noted in the overview, Pepper isn’t some two-bit comedy act made to entertain you by going “YASSSSSS,” “FIERCE,” “Werk” and etc. For while Pepper is certainly a character, as are the rest of the mothers, there is a person behind all the makeup, fancy clothes and humor. Alongside Pepper, there is Dorian Corey. Someone who isn’t a mother but a prominent figure in the movie. Alongside him is Angie Xtravaganza, Willi Ninja and Octavia St. Laurent. All of these figures present an almost black comedy to the film, in the sense that they do find reasons to laugh despite what they’ve gone through. Together, these are the people who introduce us to Ball culture and some facets of queer culture.
Now, unlike many documentaries, there isn’t so much an overall beginning and end when it comes to the film. It more so features one house at a time while focusing on different segments of a ball. Then, scattered throughout, are different subjects in either Ball culture or queer culture. For Ball culture, Dorian Corey speaks on how things have changed from the Balls being about people dressing as Showgirls to the then style which featured people trying to look like the famous models or actresses of the time. Also, there are examples and definitions given for such things as reading, shade and what all these houses are about essentially. Altogether, the documentary doesn’t necessarily overwhelm you with information but gives you just enough of a taste to quench your thirst.
But, like most good documentaries, you are left feeling like you know more on your way out then you knew on your way in. What helps this learning process is that every single person makes for an intriguing personality which, again, doesn’t feel two dimensional. Most shows featuring queer characters, outside of a Shonda Rhimes productions, and maybe Lafayette and Tara on True Blood, seem to embody Ms. J from America’s Top Model. When they step into a scene, focus is on them for you expect something eccentric or funny to pop up, which happens with Lafayette on True Blood, but there are moments when things do get serious. Now, I realize I speak as if Paris is Burning isn’t older than myself, but considering how few examples there are of queer culture in media, it was nice to see as many drag queens and feminine men as you would masculine men, trans-gendered and other underrepresented people of the queer community. And we don’t just get their silliness and lessons, but a bit of their sadness, dreams and a touch of their fears as well. It makes it so that the documentary feels natural and almost makes you wish this was a series rather than simply a movie.
And this leads me to the negatives of the film which solely deal with structure. I felt that it should have had a tighter focus and perhaps the usual linear means of telling a story. I say this because we bounce from the balls, veer off onto a topic and then are back to the balls again. Also, I felt like there should have occasionally been a reminder of who someone was and which house they were part of for you are introduced to so many people that only getting their name once makes it so your memory has to be good. But really, there are only minor issues. I just would have liked if perhaps they focused on each house, their mothers and children, as they prepped for a ball, rather than sort of weaving in and out from the mothers talking, what was happening at a ball, seeing some of the children speak and then talking about bits of queer and trans-gendered culture. I think it would have made it a little bit more coherent, despite the fact the film seems like it could have been filmed over a week perhaps.
I recommend this for the sake of curiosity and/or education. For, despite its dated VHS look, I think there aren’t any real issues which should stop you from watching this. I’ll admit, it does leave you wanting more in terms of learning more about the mothers, houses, and children more than seeing them dress up and vogue. But, overall I think this is a decent film to seek out if you have some curiosity and I’d consider it one of the few documentaries I may watch more than once, if just because of the personalities.
“This is White America. And when it comes to the minorities, especially Black, we as a people, for the past 400 years, are the greatest example of behavior modification in the history of civilization. We have had everything taken away from us, and yet we have all learned how to survive.”— Paris is Burning (42:30)
“Everybody wants to leave something behind them – some impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you’ve left a mark on the world if you just get through it and a few people remember your name. Then you’ve left a mark. You don’t have to bend the whole world, I think it is better to just enjoy it. Pay your dues and enjoy it.”— Paris is Burning (1:09:38)
“I remember my dad saying ‘You have three strikes against you in this world. Every black man has two: that they’re just black and they’re male. But, you’re black and you’re male and you’re gay. You’re gonna have a hard fucking time.’ Then he said ‘If you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined.’”— Paris is Burning (0:52)