By Emily Norman, Staff Writer
With USM’s 18th Annual Drag show just behind us, I found it fitting to rewatch and review one of my all-time favorite documentaries, Paris is Burning. This 1990 film directed by Jennie Livingston chronicles the lives of the community of people involved in drag balls in New York City in the late 1980s. It was Paris is Burning that first propelled drag culture into modern consciousness, and without it, we most likely wouldn’t even have had drag shows come to USM, let alone shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race on television. And, even if we did somehow end up with RuPaul’s Drag Race on TV, we wouldn’t have half of the jokes and references if it wasn’t for Paris is Burning.
The documentary features many fixtures of the drag scene at the time, such as Pepper Labeija, Dorian Corey, Angie Xtravaganza and Willi Ninja, all of whom are the “mothers” of their houses. If you’re not familiar, these houses are groups of drag queens, trans women, and others who come together to perform at balls together, as well as often becoming their own family units. We see these folks as well as other members of their houses prep for and perform in balls, while telling us their often upsetting backstories and how they came to find each other.
One of the most memorable people from the film is Venus Xtravanganza, who has been immortalized for her shady reads (i.e. “You’re just an overgrown orangutan!”) which have been quoted endlessly by modern queens. Venus is a young transgender woman who has been taken under the wing of Angie Xtravanganza and quickly started to rise in the ranks of the drag balls. We see her as a bubbly, fun-loving girl who loves the glitz and glamor the scene has to offer, as well as someone who dreams of a relatively traditional future with a loving husband, children and a white picket fence.
However, when Livingston comes back after a short period of time to catch up with her documentary subjects before ending the film, we find out that Venus never got a chance at the future she desired. In the follow up interview with her “mother” Angie, we learn that Venus was later found murdered in a hotel room in the city, and it is implied that her death was linked to her being a sex worker. Sadly, her murderer still hasn’t been found to this day.
Unfortunately, Venus’ story is shared by all to many transgender women throughout history. The inclusion of her death is a devastating reminder of the dangerous reality faced by transgender women of the time and today as well.
Of course, there is much more to the film than Venus’ story. Livingston provides the audience with plenty of interesting people who come from all different kinds of backgrounds, yet were united through the drag balls. We get to hear fascinating stories of their lives, all while being able to examine the huge role that race, class and gender have in this specific subculture. For many people, this first film was and is their first exposure to drag culture, and it breaks down many stereotypes. It humanizes the people in it, and perhaps for some, it was or is the first time they could connect with someone who was gay or transgender.
In today’s increasingly heated political climate with issues of sex, gender, race and class always somehow involved in political issues, it’s nice to take a look back at a documentary like Paris is Burning to show us how similar we really are. At the end of the day, we all have dreams and hopes for the future and we all hope to find a place to belong. If there’s one overarching reason to watch this film, it’s that it’s a great example of people pulling together to create something bigger than themselves, despite all the hardships they’ve faced and all the differences they may have.
If we’re getting into more niche reasons to watch the movie, I’ll say you should definitely watch it if you’re a fan of such things as RuPaul’s Drag Race or even a casual attendee of the recent drag show for USM. This film will give you a much deeper understanding of the subculture and how it has evolved over time, and you’ll definitely enjoy all of the throwback glamor and fashion and danceable tunes as well. You can view Paris is Burning on Netflix.