“My Dad told me you have three strikes against your name. You’re Black, you’re male, and you’re gay. You’re going to have to be stronger than you’ve ever imagined.”
New York City in 1990 was a terrifying place for Black LGBTQ+ communities. With the crack epidemic stoking the fires of a violent crimewave, the city’s murder rate reached an all-time high of 2,245 deaths. Nearly 90,000 American citizens had succumbed to what was described behind the closed doors of the White House as “the gay plague” during the eight-year Reagan presidency. And at the height of the AIDS pandemic in the late ’80s, anti-gay violence spiked by 200%.
This was the backdrop to Paris Is Burning, a triumphant statement of freedom, love and creativity in New York’s underground ballroom drag scene, produced at the height of its subjects’ oppression. Even the film’s straight, white financiers had zero faith that the American public would pay to see it.
And yet, the film made back eight times its budget upon release in 1990. It picked up major awards at festivals as distinguished as Toronto, Sundance and Berlin. And it found major fanfare in the press, ending up on “best of the year” lists in esteemed publications like Time and The Washington Post.
On its 30th anniversary, NME takes a closer look at the power, the controversy, and the tragedy of one of the most important films in the history of queer cinema. A time capsule of the Golden Age of gay and trans culture in New York, the legacy of Paris Is Burning remains as vital today as it did in 1990.
Set to a soundtrack of pumping New York disco, funk and soul (the licensing of which cost over a third of the film’s $500,000 budget), Paris Is Burning offers a glimpse into a subterranean wonderland hidden from the oppressive world above.
Inspired by the Harlem Renaissance of the ’20s, and African-American queer communities of the ’60s and ’70s, these ballrooms thrived at night through glamorous costume competitions and choreographed dance-offs, where entrants mimicked the triumphant poses of glossy magazine cover stars to “vogue” their competitors into submission. “It’s like World War 3!”, one giddy reveller declares, as sweaty shades of brown and sepia destroy the illusion of white America in this document of a queer, Black society thriving in a theatre of fantasy.
It took ACT UP activist Jennie Livingstone seven years to produce, editing down 75 hours of footage into a 78-minute documentary, and making stars of its infinitely quotable subjects in the process. From Pepper LaBeija, “legendary mother of the House of LaBeija”, to Dorian Corey, whose wisdom is exclusively shared while applying extravagant make-up in her dressing room, these characters provide gleam and spark to every scene.
But for every moment of inspiration and empowerment, the film also captures the devastating hardships of these subjects’ troubled lives: poverty, familial rejection, and, in the most shocking instance, the murder of one of the film’s liveliest stars, 23-year-old Venus Xtravaganza.
For her life’s work, Livingstone received a healthy backlash, despite what she defends as her most honest intentions. Criticised as a “culture tourist” selling a vision of a poor and marginalised Black and Latino society for white consumption (it was advertised as a film about the lives of prostitutes and welfare recipients), she received lawsuits from the film’s cast who sought up to $40 million in compensation following the film’s success.
But the greater tragedy of Paris Is Burning is one of society as a whole. There are four names already listed in memoriam during the closing credits, and within just three years of release, five of the nine cast members had died. “Paris Has Burned,” read a New York Times headline in April 1993, following the news that Angie, mother of the House of Xtravaganza, had passed away due to AIDS-related liver disease at the age of 28.
The decade that followed featured little in the way of solace for the film’s vibrant supporters. The last remaining queen of the Harlem drag balls, Pepper LaBeija, would lose both her feet to diabetes, before dying of a heart attack in 2003.
Despite these significant losses, Paris Is Burning was, nonetheless, the genesis of a greater understanding and appreciation of queer culture that endures to this day.
“It helped people feel welcome and loved and accepted”, said late talk show host (and gay icon) Joan Rivers on her 1991 TV chat show, as voguing became a global phenomenon through hit singles by Madonna and Malcolm McLaren. The former hired two members of the House of Xtravaganza for her 1990 ‘Blonde Ambition’ tour, while the latter helped to set up an emphatic career in dance choreography for one of the film’s brightest stars: the “assassin” Willi Ninja.
The legacy of Paris Is Burning lives on in TV series’ like RuPaul’s Drag Race, which regularly quotes the film verbatim, and Pose, an Emmy-awarded fictionalised account of the same ballroom universe, also conceived by Jennie Livingstone. And while the original film itself was long bound to worn-out VHS copies, the United States National Film Registry, in 2016, selected it for preservation for its cultural and historical significance.
In 2020, Paris Is Burning has been picked up by the Criterion Collection for widespread distribution once again, and today the film’s opening mantra remains as potent as ever. Against a backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests, discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals remains a constant, with at least 26 violent deaths of trans or gender non-conforming individuals reported in the US this year so far. And in the same country, which counts 13% of their population as African-American, a disproportionate 42% of new HIV cases are still attributed to Black and Latino citizens.
There is still a lot of work to be done to reduce stigmatisation and stop the marginalisation of these communities. But as Venus Xtravaganza once declared, as captured on Paris Is Burning, “we are the most gorgeous, special things on Earth.” That’s something to be celebrated – today, tomorrow, and every day.
Paris Is Burning is available on Blu-ray and DVD now via Criterion Collection