Paris is Burning

If all you know about "Voguing" comes from Madonna, this spirited and heartbreaking documentary from first-time filmmaker Jennie Livingston will be an eyeopener. Livingston has been at work on the film since 1985, when she first encountered voguers in a Greenwich Village park. They were black and Latino gay men, mostly poor and primarily transsexuals and drag queens. Inspired by African dance, Egyptian hieroglyphics, fashion magazines and TV shows like Dynasty, voguers strike poses like runway models, punctuating their routines with acrobatic moves and "shade" (slang for verbal abuse). Gathering at balls the annual Paris Is Burning Ball, in Harlem, is a favorite they dress up and compete for prizes. Some acquire their costume money from menial jobs, others from stealing and prostitution. Livingston shot most of the film in 1987 (it was delayed while she attempted to get funding to finish it), taking her camera into the balls and interviewing the "ball children" about their lives. The result could have been an exploitative freak show, but Livingston simply observes. She shows the voguers dividing themselves into rival "houses" and competing in categories that include Town and Country, School, Executive and Luscious Body. The goal is "realness," the ability to pass as something you are not. Livingston poignantly captures the voguers' desperation. These ball children are outcasts. Often rejected by their families, they find comfort in the camaraderie of the balls and pride in the fantasy that by expertly aping mainstream media culture they can briefly belong. This is America, Mr. Jones. And Paris Is Burning catches the sadly hollow spectacle with acuity, wit and intelligence.

From The Archives Issue 601: April 4, 1991