A Paris is Burning Review: The Black Beyond the Rainbow

New York is a city that is heavily represented in the medium of cinema, Woody Allen constantly finds romance and even solace in it, while Martin Scorsese sees nothing but crime and corruption within it, but young filmmaker Jennie Livingston shed light on parts of it that were previously uncharted and introduced the world to the gay culture of the city, and all the balls and the voguing that come with it, and the racism and the hate as well. Paris is Burning is a 1990 documentary on the culture of balls in New York during the mid to late eighties, concentrating mainly on the African-American and Latino communities that attended them, and the lives they led inside of the balls and outside of them.

Paris is Burning is half footage of the actual balls, half interviews with the people who attend them, and the interviews serve to explain terms that gain novel meanings when used in the context of gay communities. Balls are for example competitions that resemble to a large degree fashion shows and which contain many categories, some are for resemblance to actual models, actors, actresses, etc., and some are for resemblance to the straight counterparts of the participants and how well they can emulate a heterosexual person who suffers none of the hate and discrimination they do. Many other terms are explained throughout the 76 minutes long documentary, like voguing, which is a dance style that originated in balls and that gains its name from the way Vogue models pose for the front cover, or mothers, who are the leaders of houses, houses being groups and small communities of competitors who prepare for balls together.

But beyond the rainbow, beyond the glamour and idealism these people hide behind for a few hours, there is a dark truth, one filled with racism, intolerance, poverty and often even mortal danger. Director Jennie Livingston went to her first ball after she had seen two men voguing in a public New York park, and there she met Venus Xtravaganza for the first time, along with several other personalities that appear throughout the film. Much like her experience and introduction to this world, the film doesn’t tell us of the misery most of these people live in until after it introduces us to what brings them together in the first place. Pepper Labeija, mother of house Labeija, talks about how poor her children are, how most of them have no choice but prostitution and theft to survive, let alone participate in balls. Venus Xtravaganza, who was a major icon in the gay scene at that time, is one day found strangled underneath a hotel bed, probably by an unsatisfied client. And most of the “children of the houses” are homeless either because of marital problems or enraged parents.

Another theme that seems to go unnoticed when discussing Paris is Burning is the influence of media. The dreams and ambitions of the people who attend balls are largely shaped by media, whether it be the seemingly glamorous life of models, or the wealth and comfort that comes with being an actor or an actress, or just the social security that is constantly associated with being white.  

Paris is Burning is a celebration of celebration, an introduction to a world that remained distasteful for far too long, and a hope for a better tomorrow where being different doesn’t get you killed. Its beautiful message is delivered through a captivating journey captured amateurly and beautifully, and the final product is a film that should be a must-watch for anyone wishing to be a member of brighter and more tolerant human race.


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