Director Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning achieved instant cult-classic status upon its release in 1991. A freewheeling, enormously entertaining look behind the scenes of Harlem’s expansive drag ball scene of the late 1980s, Paris is Burning brings a specific group of these often marginalized Black and Latinx men into sharp, up-close-and-personal focus.
Restored and digitally remastered by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, in conjunction with the Sundance Institute and Outfest UCLA Legacy Project, Paris is Burning screens at St. Petersburg’s Green Light Cinema today (June 11) and Saturday, at 6 and 8 p.m. both days.
On its surface, the film is a time capsule, depicting an underground ritual of dance, costuming and vogueing, the latter just coming into the popular vernacular at the time. Ball winners – voted on by a panel of Olympic-style judges holding up numbers to rate the contestants – receive large, bowling league-style trophies. It was – and is – a social ritual, a fun and inclusive pageant where gay men in drag can be themselves without fear of judgement (or worse) from the outside world.
The latter is what takes Paris is Burning past purely voyeuristic territory, delightful though the ball scenes are. In interviews filmed during quieter moments, the performers discuss, time and again, being ostracized by their families and shunned by society, street life with its recurring arrests and recurring beatings, and ultimately the release and satisfaction of finding a new, accepting family and an encouraging environment.
Pose, a scripted TV series about the ‘80s drag ball scene and its “house mothers,” aired for three seasons on FX (the series finale was broadcast June 6). It won an Emmy as Outstanding Drama Series, with Billy Porter taking the Emmy for Lead Actor in a Dramatic Series.
With Pose and the continuing TV success of RuPaul’s Drag Race (soon to begin Season 14), drag culture has become part of the American vernacular.
With its tender blend of joy and pathos – several of the featured characters died tragically within a few years of the film shoot – Paris is Burning chronicles the realities, both hot and cold, of the era.