If there is one genre of film that is seeing something of a resurgence over the last half decade or so, it has been the world of documentary film. With names like Morris and Herzog still churning out brilliant film after brilliant film now a handful of decades into their careers, and new names like Junger and Ferguson crafting generation defining looks at politics, economics and everything else that has become chaotic within this ever changing world.
However, this isn’t the first renaissance non-fiction cinema has seen. Be it the time following the events of September 11, 2001 or in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with the rise of more experimental documentaries, one of the most exciting times for documentary cinema came in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
With films like The Thin Blue Line all the way up to Steve James’ all time great documentary Hoop Dreams, one film that arrived near the middle of that timeline may be one of the most underrated documentary films ever made, while also being one of the most socially important, right up until this very moment.
Entitled Paris Is Burning, the 1990 film from director Jennie Livingston (who marks this as her only feature length documentary) follows the story of the still lively drag scene in New York, then set during the 1980s, and one particular aspect. While inherently a beautiful and absolutely emotionally moving meditation on sex, love, life, gender, acceptance and the formation of self-image, the film is set against events known as balls.
Here, these men and women are not only able to create new characters for them to portray. Almost entirely an African American subculture, these men and women take everyday roles like a doctor, a soldier or even a classic Hollywood A-lister, people are able to drop their past lives (there is one touching scene of a young 15 year old proclaiming that he has no mother, only to tell us that she and his father have left him behind) and become something entirely new, without need to worry about being accepted.
Going further, these men and women would join what are known as “houses.” A subculture not unlike a, say, Greek society found within the college world, these houses would become the primary source of support for these men and women as they go through life in this movement. These people find mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters within these houses, and its in that support system that these men and women thrive, as its something so foreign to them (in a world where the rise of AIDs a backdrop to this overall masterful narrative) ultimately making this is as involving a look at identity and as pertinent a social documentary as there is today.
Aesthetically, this film is both of its time, and absolutely timeless. Possibly best known for helping elevating the dance known as “voguing,” the film is a near perfect blend of melancholic social drama and utterly enthralling “battle” sequences. There is so much life within each frame of this film, and that means those that are as intimate as a conversation between friends in a living room touching on the importance of houses, all the way to the most energetic and elaborate vogue sequences.
New York is very much a character here, and this is a New York that we don’t see very often today. The cinematography gives the city a gritty and hazy aesthetic, adding to the overall beauty of the picture. Very much similar in aesthetic to a film like Hoop Dreams, the New York nights look full of vitality, and the ball sequences even more so.
Clocking in at just shy of 80 minutes, the film is a rather quick watch, but it’s not without cramming a load of narrative into a concise 78 minutes. The film touches on main players within the movement/scene, ranging from Pepper LeBeija to the equally-awesomely-named Angie Xtravaganza, but the main focus is on the scene itself. Finding most of its emotional weight within the disarmingly intimate interview segments, most of its intellectual weight comes from the formation of these groups, and how acceptance can change one’s life at its very core. The only judgment being levied upon each member of this scene comes during the balls, during the “walks,” which is ostensibly a runway show, in which each person is judged based on the “realness” of their drag. Including things like fashion and their dancing ability, the openness and welcoming nature of the scene make the idea of being forced to be as “real” as possible something absolutely thrilling.
Overall, while the film itself is relatively easy to find on streaming services around the web, a Blu-ray is desperately needed. A DVD was released a handful of years ago, but that itself is a costly purchase (currently just under its $20 price point at $17.98), and a new transfer could be extremely worthwhile. Listed on the National Film Registry website as one of the major pictures not yet entered into the registry, that will hopefully change soon, and with that, maybe the light will be shined on the film hotly enough that a Blu-ray could be released. Criterion could be just the company, as well. Give similar treatment to this as they did a film like The War Room, including a commentary, retrospective, interviews, etc. and you could really have something special. However, we will always have this beautiful documentary, and for that, we’ve already lucked out.