Paris is Burning paints an intimate portrait of one of the most historically marginalised groups in society: black queer youth. Released in 1990, the documentary follows the lives of several participants involved in ball culture of New York City. The term “Ball culture” here refers to a circuit of competitions, similar to beauty pageants, where contestants would “walk” or compete in different categories that often involve dressing in a particular kind of drag.
In the film, Livingston takes the viewer behind the scenes of these events, showing the hosts and contestants getting ready for the ball and even offering glimpses into the characters’ personal lives. Ahead of its time, the film uses these narratives to talk about larger topics like racism and gender. The film especially focuses on how we perform gender. Whether it be through dressing as a businessman or in the “Femme Realness” category, which judged whether queens could pass as real women, the film brings to life the individual power that comes from that performance as well as fashion’s ability to challenge social norms.
However, of its many merits, the film’s greatest accomplishment is the humanity it gives to its subjects and how deeply it immerses the reader in this world that may be distant from their own. Like any great auteur, Livingston doesn’t settle for the passive absorption of narrative, but instead goes above and beyond to make the reader feel the world on a visceral, sensory level. For instance, Livingston uses fluid handheld camera movements while filming contestants walking in the balls, giving the viewer an impression of the wild, boisterous energy they would have experienced actually being there. The subjects themselves strike a natural balance between ignoring and acknowledging the camera and as a result the audience feels as if we’re simply hanging out with the contestants rather than watching a documentary about them.
by Sophie Hayssen
Sophie is a 20-year old college student studying English and American Studies. She likes to creative writing as a form of self-expression and procrastination. Her other interests include music, playing guitar badly, and enjoying the great outdoors from the even greater indoors. You can follow her at @filossofee and find links to more of her work here.