This is a documentary about gay culture in 1980s New York. It focuses on the drag balls, competitive pageants of female impersonation, and speaks to many of the characters who have found a place to thrive. It really needs to be seen to be understood.
Paris is Burning benefits from its organic feel, with its makers getting an honest look at their subjects, relying on their stories and anecdotes, rather than flashy presentation, to make an impact. It looks at the aspirations and desires of its gay and transgendered participants, and also the price they have to pay to be a part of this world. Unsurprisingly many of them have difficult pasts, but the focus is more on the fabulousness of the world they’ve built for themselves.
It covers a whistlestop tour of gay slang from the era including reading, throwing shade, realness and voguing, much of which is now mainstream. And my is there some impressive voguing. The dance craze appropriated and popularized by Madonna here takes on a whole new meaning as people such as Willi Ninja devote their lives to the art throw unbelievable shapes on the dancefloor with breathtaking agility.
It’s a fascinating look at gender identities too. In the late 80s people’s understanding of identities such as the difference between a drag queen and a transgender woman was less well established and the lines are more fuzzy here. What permeates this documentary is an admirable indifference to gender, where being who you want to be is more important than who the clothes are marketed to. Some gay men, for example, dress as soldiers or business executives to go to a ball. It’s about aspiration more than just female impersonation.
A community made from people who have been shunned elsewhere becomes accepting of everyone regardless of appearance, race, gender identity or clothing choice, which is something that is very impressive. It allows for a huge array of outrageous queens who make this documentary so rich.
This isn’t LGBT culture with the edges sanded off for mainstream consumption, this is more like the gay culture of Dog Day Afternoon, from a grass roots community not media promotion. This is a crucial documentary which has preserved forever the spirit of a world which is now lost.