Jennie Livingston’s award-winning documentary Paris Is Burning has received a 4K restoration twenty-eight years after its initial release, and it’ll screen in select theatres across Canada throughout the year. I believe the re-release was planned in part to curate the footage, but also because the documentary is relevant as ever.
The documentary is not only about drag culture in the 1980s, it’s submerged in it. Audiences are given exclusive interviews with revered drag queens and up-and-coming performers circa 1987, New York City, but most of the movie takes place in crowded halls where participants compete in annual evening balls. The extravagant events include a number of categories ranging from the expectedly outrageous to more subdued disguises that resemble mundane workplace garb. Categories leaning towards the latter add a sobering perspective to the culture, reminding movie goers of the segregation queer people (notably blacks and latinos) experience when applying for high-end jobs.
Another interesting detail is hidden in the interviews. Not only does the film capture a specific movement in a natural element, but the doc also captures a turning point in the culture. Older queens comment on how the drag scene used to be about emulating the beauty and grace of iconic starlets of the stage and screen, and how that image has shifted to sensationalizing supermodels. As someone who is fairly uneducated about the ebb-and-flow of drag culture, I can’t imagine how the scene has continued to change since then. Paris Is Burning is rightfully entertaining, but it’s very educational as well. For instance, the film lists keywords that are frequently used to describe performances or ball requirements, which are still used in a contemporary competitions.
Paris Is Burning is a learning tool on several levels, including a lesson on tolerance for those who are still slow on the uptake twenty-eight years later.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie