On director Jennie Livingston’s web site she describes her controversial 1991 movie Paris is Burning as ‘depicting a New York fashion subculture’. This documentary, she goes on to explain, was shot in the late 1980s, and examines how a community of Black and Latino gay and transgender New Yorkers build sustenance, creativity, and family. The film sets out to explore ballroom culture; re-defines words like house, mother, shade, voguing and Realness and draw’s a series of incisive character portraits about the people involved in what is a vibrant time capsule of New York’s ballroom subculture in the 80s.
Livingston’s documentary was seven years in the making and followed African American and Hispanic gay men, drag queens and transgender women as they compete in “Balls” which are fierce and fun competitions involving fashion runways and vogue dancing battles, while sporting various styles that include Butch Queen, Town and Country and Luscious Body. Many of the contestants taking part represent “Houses” which serve them as surrogate families and social groups for a predominantly youthful community largely ostracized from mainstream society. But what the movie really does is that it explores the complex issues of class, race, identity, and the transformative powers of both dance and performance.
The most interesting parts of the film are the interviews with key members of the community who take part in the Balls, which helps unlock our understanding of this colourful and entertaining culture. The saddest story is that of Venus Xtravaganza who is heavily featured in the documentary and was a transgender performer and an aspiring model who was saving money for her sex reassignment surgery before she was murdered at the age of 23.
This highly regarded documentary won several awards including a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and Teddy Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Last year (2016), the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".