A chronicle of New York’s drag scene in the 1980s, focusing on balls, voguing and the ambitions and dreams of those who gave the era its warmth and vitality
This is a documentary of ‘drag nights’ among New York’s underclass. Queens are interviewed and observed preparing for and competing in many ‘balls’. The people, the clothes, and the whole environment are outlandish.
Paris Is Burning is a 1990 American documentary film 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.
In 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”.
Upon 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, in part, to a change in how documentaries are nominated for the Academy Awards.
More than two 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 people have criticized Paris Is Burning. In Is Paris Burning?, bell hooks questioned Livingston’s depiction of the drag balls, arguing that it reduces them to mere spectacle: “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, a feminist writer 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. Judith Butler based some of her book, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, on this film.