“I remember my dad saying that everybody has three strikes in this world. Every black man has two: that you’re black and you’re male.* That you’re also gay means you’re going to have to be stronger than you ever imagined.” – Opening Salvo, Paris is Burning
It’s hard to come up with a better summary about the movie than what comes up within the first four minutes: “This movie is about the ball circuit, and the gay people that’s involved in it. And, how each person’s life brought them to this circuit.”
What is a ball circuit? The ball circuit is a series of drag competitions that developed in Harlem and other lower classes, mainly attended and participated in by blacks and latinos. Paris is Burning speeds through the origins of ball culture. Started in the thirties, Balls started as a drag fashion show by primarily white men. In the sixties, however, Harlem minorities started throwing their own balls, as drag culture transformed from general female imitation to movie star idolation which became model and executive idolation by the 1980s. In addition, at some point the Harlem balls became all-inclusive, and developed categories like “executive realness” or “lucious bodies” that pushed the limits of what was considered drag. Is it just the imitation and exaggeration of females and feminine power? Or, is it also an exaggeration of every part of cultureto which you cannot belong.
The Harlem balls became about fantasy fulfillment. You can go as an ultra-straight thug, or as an executive, or as a student, or as a butch queen. It’s about trying to look like what you idealize. It’s about looking like you belong. Paris is Burning highlights the desire of belonging, delving into the societal causes while never becoming a screed against dominant media stories.
Actually, there is a lot going on in Paris is Burning. It is about the ball circuit. It reflects some of the very intriguing lives involved in the ball circuit. It dissects some of the motivations within the culture (e.g. “You look like a real man; a straight men.” “It’s not a take off, or a satire. No, its actually being this person.”). It is about the history. It is about modern culture and economics. It is about in-group fighting, and societal structures. It is about the mainstream appropriation that started happening as the film was being constructed.
Paris is Burning touches on what is going on in the society around it, without being brutal about it. 13-year-old boys are interviewed at 2:30am in Harlem, just hanging out, nonchalantly admitting that they come from broken homes. At one point, an older queen states “If more people went to balls instead of doing drugs, it would be a better world, wouldn’t it?” This is 1987. This is when crack cocaine was starting to really come into its own in Harlem. Peeking around the edges of Paris is Burning is the broken homes and poverty of Harlem and the Bronx. Also peeking around is the cost of living in New York, and the culture of materialism.
What’s not merely peeking around the corner is the racism inherent in American culture and the ’80s. Right in the middle of the film, a narrator documents the whiteness and materialism of America. The narrator opines on the media habits of America. He comments that we’re watching Dynasty. He says that we’re watching white people with lawns. He says that, in the ball circuit, they must reflect the Great White Way to succeed and get noticed. The better they are at appropriating these looks and mannerisms and speech patterns, the more they’ll get rewarded.
Thus, the ball circuit is all about the fantasy of succeeding in the world that is stacked against them as a homosexual, as a minority, and as a person of poverty. They pose in labels, whether they got that label by hook or by crook. The goal is look like they have wealth, even if they don’t. They look fabulous in order to emulate what the dominant culture is fetishizing at the moment. Models, soldiers, celebrities, business people (it was the 80s), etc. This is about being whatever they want to be.
Paris is Burning’s main semi-flaw is its blur of drag and transgenderism. Some of the subjects are male-identified cis-men taking on the dressings of a woman. Others are men or boys who actually would like to be women, wanting to have sex changes. Venus Xtravanganza, a central character in the movie, is a small boy who also is a hustler and idealizes the stereotypical white girl. She dreams of being married with a house in a white picket fence. She wants a sex change to fulfill this dream and is never seen without her female attire. Other men are only in female drag for the ball, and dressed like men outside of it. The subjects in the film range from one extreme to the other. Some men say that being a woman would make things easier because men want to give women things. Others observe that being a woman is also seen as a weakness and can make things much much harder for them.
There is so much context crammed into this movie that I could write for hours and hours on this documentary. I could write about how fame and money have perverted the morality of culture. I could write about the Ford modeling call. I could write about the high-end AIDS fundraiser being judged by Fran Leibowitz. I could go deeper into the racial aspects of this movie. I could go into the sexual politics of modeling. Or the way that drugs, poverty, and homophobia seems to have shaped the culture. I could go on about the amazing chartacters in the film from the afore-mentioned Venus to Dorian Corey, an older drag queen who provides bits of weary elder wisdom while putting on makeup. I could talk about the white appropriation of drag and vogueing into the mainstream culture (*ahem*Madonna*ahem*). I could go on about the dangers of hustling this film presents.
It’s all in this movie and more. You can’t watch Paris is Burning expecting just an easy movie about drag. You can’t expect just a movie about transgenderism. It’s an extremely complex movie compressed into 76 minutes of pure electricity. This is an essential documentary.
“You don’t have to bend the world. You just have to enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high…hooray for you.” – Dorian Corey
*It should be noted that I do not agree that being male is counted as a negative in the world. Regardless of my feelings, this is the opening speech of Paris is Burning and it should be noted that many of these gay men are trying to idealize women without satirizing them.