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Paris is Burning

Paris is Burning

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This week, we’ll be investigating a documentary released in 1990 called Paris Is Burning, directed by Jennie Livingston.  Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, it chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities involved in it. Some critics consider the film to be an invaluable documentary of the end of the "Golden Age" of New York City drag balls, and a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America.

The film explores the elaborately-structured ball competitions in which contestants, adhering to a very specific category or theme, must walk (much like a fashion model's runway) and subsequently be judged on criteria including the "realness" of their drag, the beauty of their clothing and their dancing ability.

Most of the film alternates between footage of balls and interviews with prominent members of the scene, including Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Angie Xtravaganza, and Willi Ninja. Many of the contestants vying for trophies are representatives of "Houses" (in the fashion-brand sense, such as "House of Chanel") that serve as intentional families, social groups, and performance teams. Houses and ball contestants who consistently won in their walks eventually earned a status labeled “legendary”.

Jennie Livingston, who moved to New York after graduating from Yale to work in film, and who spent six years making Paris Is Burning, concentrated on interviews with key figures in the ball world, many of whom contribute monologues that shed light on the ball culture as well as on their own personalities. In the film, titles such as "house," "mother," and "reading" emphasize how the subculture the film depicts has taken words from the straight and white worlds, and imbued them with alternate meanings, just as the "houses" serve as surrogate families for young ball-walkers whose sexual orientations have sometimes made acceptance and love within their own families hard to come by.

The film depicts people with different gender identities or communities and their different forms of expression. It also explores how its subjects dealt with the adversity of racism, homophobia, AIDS and poverty. For example, some, like Venus Xtravaganza became sex workers, some shoplift clothing, and some were thrown out of their homes by homophobic parents. One participant was saving money for sex reassignment surgery. Yet what makes this film significant is its approach. According to Livingston and according to the reviewers and movie-goers who viewed the film, this documentary is a multi-leveled exploration of a subculture in African American and Latino cultures that proves to be a microcosm of society, which was an underappreciated and arguably underground world that many Americans were unfamiliar with. Through candid one-on-one interviews the film offers insight into the lives and struggles of its subjects and the strength, pride, and humor they maintain to survive in a "rich, white-centric world."

Drag is presented as a complex performance of gender, class, and race, in which one can express one's identity, desires and aspirations along many dimensions. The African-American and Latino community depicted in the film includes a diverse range of identities and gender presentations, from gay men to butch queens to transgender men and women.

The film also documents the origins of "voguing", a dance style in which competing ball-walkers freeze and "pose" in glamorous positions (as if being photographed for the cover of Vogue). Recording artist Malcolm McLaren would, two years before Paris Is Burning was completed, bring the phenomenon to the mainstream with his song "Deep in Vogue", which sampled the movie and directly referenced many of the stars of Paris Is Burning including Pepper LaBeija, also featuring dancers from the film, including Willi Ninja. The single went on to reaching #1 in the US Billboard Dance Chart. One year after this, the inimitable Madonna released her number one song "Vogue", skyrocketing attention to the dancing style.

However, Livingston maintains that the film is not just about "a cute dance." Quote: "This is a film that is important for anyone to see, whether they're gay or not. It's about how we're all influenced by the media; how we strive to meet the demands of the media by trying to look like Vogue models or by owning a big car. And it's about survival. It's about people who have a lot of prejudices against them and who have learned to survive with wit, dignity and energy. It's a little story about how we all survive."

Music producers C&C Music Factory sampled some of Paris is Burning in one of the tracks from their Gonna Make You Sweat album, entitled "Bonus" or "Shade". Famous drag queen RuPaul has also sampled a few of the quotes from the documentary in her film Starrbooty, as well as on her TV show RuPaul's Drag Race.

The film received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts during the period when the organization was under fire for funding controversial artists including Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. Aware that publicity surrounding her project could result in revoked funding, Livingston avoided releasing many details about the project outside of her small circle of producers and collaborators.

Several of the most heavily featured performers wished to sue in 1991 for a share of the film's profits. Paris DuPree sought the largest settlement of $40 million for unauthorized use of her ball. The producers stated that they had always planned on compensating the principal participants. All dropped their claims after their attorneys confirmed that they had signed releases prior to filming. The producers then distributed approximately $55,000 among thirteen of the participants.

Upon its release, the documentary received rave reviews from critics and won several awards including a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, a Berlin International Film Festival Teddy Bear, an audience award from the Toronto International Film Festival, a GLAAD Media Award, a Women in Film Crystal Award, a Best Documentary award from the Los Angeles, New York, and National Film Critics' Circles, and it also was named as one of 1991's best films by the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio, Time magazine, and others. Paris Is Burning failed to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature that year, adding to a growing perception that certain subjects and treatments were excluded from consideration for Oscars, and leading parenthetically, in part, to a change in how documentaries are nominated for the Academy Awards.

Almost three decades later, Paris Is Burning remains an organizing tool for gay and trans youth; a way for scholars and students to examine issues of race, class, and gender; a way for younger ball participants to meet their ancestors; and a portrait of several remarkable Americans, most of whom have died since the film's production.

Some have criticized the film. In Is Paris Burning?, Bell Hooks, who is an American author, feminist, and social activist, questioned Livingston's depiction of the drag balls, arguing that it reduces them to mere spectacle: Quote: “Much of the film’s focus on pageantry takes the ritual of the black drag ball and makes it spectacle. Ritual is that ceremonial act that carries with it meaning and significance beyond what appears, while spectacle functions primarily as entertaining dramatic display... Hence it is easy for white observers to depict black rituals as spectacle.” Hooks, who is not LGBT-identified, also questioned the political efficacy of the drag balls themselves, citing her own experimentations with drag, and suggesting that the balls themselves lack political, artistic, and social significance. 

I’ve listed the numerous awards the film won, and continues to win, over at www.mattachinepodcast.com, so I encourage you to explore more there. Significantly, just last year, the film was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, a great honor for any film, and signaling a sense of gravity, cultural significance, and overall permanence of the documentary. 

What became of the film’s stars? As I mentioned, several of the central characters have long since died. Angie Xstravaganza died in New York at age 28 from an AIDS-related liver disease. Almost three weeks later The New York Times published an article on the ball scene on the front page of the Sunday "Styles" section, featuring a large photo of Angie. Entitled "Paris Has Burned", the article recounted the current status of the underground ball scene and the untimely passing of many of its central personalities. In 1994, the year following her death, Junior Vasquez who by that point was at the zenith of the New York house scene, released a single simply titled "X", which bore a dedication to the memory of Angie Xtravaganza on the record label. The record remains a popular club anthem even today. Angie Xtravaganza's legacy endures through the House of Xtravaganza which remains an active part of New York City's gay ballroom, nightlife, and cultural scene.

Pepper LaBeija suffered from diabetes type 2 and had to have both feet amputated as a result. She was largely bedridden for the final ten years of her life. On May 14, 2003, LaBeija died of a heart attack at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan at the age of 54. She was survived by two children, a son and a daughter.

Octavia St. Laurent died after a heroic, long battle with cancer on May 17, 2009. 

Dorian Corey died on August 29, 1993, from AIDS-related complications at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan at the age of 56. In perhaps the most curious remnant stemming from the film’s notoriety, soon after Corey's death, the mummified body of Robert Worley (also known as Robert Wells) was found in Corey's belongings with a gunshot wound to the head. Investigators determined the body had been dead for about 15 years. It is speculated that Worley was an abusive ex-boyfriend of Corey's, or that she killed him in self-defense during a potential burglary. 

Willie Ninja died of AIDS-related heart failure in New York City on September 2, 2006 at age 45. After his death, he has continued to inspire many artists and music DJs. Ninja is a central figure in scholarship in LGBTQ studies, gender studies, and performance studies for his non-conforming and transgressive gender expression as an artist. 

Lastly, and quite stunningly, Venus Xtravaganza (house daughter to Angie Extravanza) was found strangled under a bed at The Duchess Hotel in 1988—two years before the eventual release of the film. Her body was discovered by a stranger four days after her death. Her killer has never been found, to this day, though the investigation is still open.

Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I’ve often heard either people in the media or in my own social circles give a passing acceptance of the LGBT community, stating that they were Quote: “fine with ‘them’ but that they didn’t like it flung in their faces”. This has always been puzzling to me; life has many different flavors, and there’s a lot to see and explore—why not try to understand all walks of life, even if they’re radically different from your own personal norm?  When this film hit the zeitgeist, I distinctly remember viewing the stars of the film as heros in the LGBT community. For it is those who push the social barriers, and it is those who are among the first to do so, who truly end up being the ones who progress the LGBT movement forward. They definitely help clear the way for social acceptance for all of us coming up after them.

Thank you for listening to the Mattachine Podcast.  This episode was researched, written, narrated, and produced by Brad Dunshee—yours truly.  Our logo was designed by Matt Smith. 

If you want to support this podcast, including costs associated with producing it, please visit patreon.com/mattachine.  Any amount is extremely appreciated, to keep this thing going.

In an ongoing effort to bring you fresh LGBT stories week after week, please email us at mattachinepod@gmail.com with episode suggestions.  We’ll do our best to get these into the editorial calendar.  If you like the show, please tell your friends, and please subscribe to us in your favorite podcast app.  We love reviews, so please feel free to leave one of those, as well—it really helps get the word out.  We’ll be back next week with another episode about our LGBT history, so until then, please be good to one another.

Awards Won

1990 – IDA Award, International Documentary Association

1990 – LAFCA Award Best Documentary, Los Angeles Film Critics Association

1990 – Audience Award Best Documentary, San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

1991 – Grand Jury Prize Documentary, Sundance Film Festival

1991 – Teddy Award for Best Documentary Film, Berlin International Film Festival

1991 – Boston Society of Film Critics Awards (BSFC) Best Documentary

1991 – Open Palm Award, now called Breakthrough Director Award Gotham Awards

1991 – NYFCC Award Best Documentary, New York Film Critics Circle Awards

1991 – Golden Space Needle Award Best Documentary, Seattle International Film Festival

1992 – Outstanding Film (Documentary), GLAAD Media Awards

1992 – NSFC Award Best Documentary, National Society of Film Critics

2015 – Cinema Eye Honours Legacy Award

Leonard Matlovich

Leonard Matlovich

Brandon Teena

Brandon Teena