When Paris is Burning premiered at Sundance in 1990, the film was hailed as “poignant and profound” and a “passionately empathetic piece of documentary filmmaking.”
Director Jennie Livingston’s keen observance of New York City’s ballroom scene—and the black and brown queer and trans performers who shaped it—brought a subculture to the forefront of the mainstream. Stars of Paris is Burning appeared on The Joan Rivers Show. Straight America suddenly realized Madonna didn’t invent vogueing. The film would eventually be added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” But most important, the often-shunted community of the ballroom—marginalized even within the larger LGBTQ+ community by the rich and/or white elements within it—were gaining visibility and recognition for an art form that significantly influenced culture as a whole and that shows no signs of fading today.
Paris is Burning is being re-released in theaters this month, coinciding with New York City hosting World Pride, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and the return of Pose, FX’s critically acclaimed and groundbreaking drama heavily inspired by Paris is Burning. With the spotlight shining particularly bright on LGBTQ+ culture, Fast Company spoke with Livingston about why the film is just as relevant today and who’s allowed to tell what stories.
Having graduated from Yale where she studied photography and art, Livingston decided to move to NYC in 1985, taking up film at NYU. While strolling through Washington Square Park, she happened upon some guys who were using lingo she had never heard before, and, at her best guess, posing.
“I didn’t know what they were doing,” Livingston recalls. “They were saying things like, ‘Saks Fifth Avenue mannequin’ and ‘butch queen in drag.’ I just asked if I could photograph them and they said yes.”
Turns out, they were vogueing. With Livingston still at a loss, they explained it’s a style of dance and that if she wanted to learn more, she should go to a ball.
The ballroom scene can best be described as an event where contestants dance and/or walk (i.e., model) in various categories to win trophies. The categories can range from the fairly straightforward, like “Body” and “Face” (who has the most appealing of either) to the more nuanced like “Femme Queen Realness,” where male-identifying or trans contestants are judged on their ability to pass as cisgender women; or categories where you’re meant to dress as military service people, high-powered businessmen, society ladies—basically fantasies of everything people in that community couldn’t be in the real world.
“I was like, ‘What’s going on here? Who’s in control? What are these categories? I was just captivated,” Livingston says. “It was a story that wanted to be told. It was a story about movement. It was a story about a subculture. It was a story about people who had a lot to say and a world that was kind of a mirror to mainstream society.”
What Livingston captures in Paris is Burning has become one for the most seminal films not only in queer culture, but POC queer culture, specifically. The ballroom scene as we know it today was cultivated by African American and Latinx men and women who found a sense of community within the larger LGBTQ+ community, where racism, classism, and even transphobia ran (and still run) rampant.
That said, Livingston recalls having no issues at the time infiltrating the culture even as an Ivy League educated, cisgender white woman.
“In terms of being welcomed either at a ball or in people’s homes to do an interview, that really did not come up,” Livingston says. “And I’m not in some naive, I-don’t-see-color place about that. The world was a party world. It was open to anyone who entered. Also, there was no internet. So if you ended up at a ball, it was ’cause you met somebody on the pier and they handed you a flyer. It was because you came with a friend. It was because you belonged.”
However, as celebrated as Paris is Burning has been, there are also critics who feel as if it was never Livingston’s story to tell in the first place. Feminist scholar bell hooks dismissed the film as white voyeurism. Four years ago, a petition was started to shut down a screening of Paris is Burning to “end the exploitation of the ballroom community.” Some of the stars of the film even explored legal action to sue for a share of the profits. They eventually dropped their claims having already signed release forms, but Livingston did pay out around $55,000 to 13 cast members. But a narrative was painted that a white woman was taking advantage of an even more marginalized group.
“Some of the conversations about appropriation in the last five years, I don’t think they’re wrong,” Livingston acknowledges. “I don’t think it’s wrong to ask who gets to tell what stories. I just don’t like it when people see [Paris is Burning] a-historically and they don’t look at the facts. There wasn’t anyone else competing with me to make the film. It became a feature because of a prominent African American executive producer who was running a TV station who saw what I was doing and gave us the money to shoot a feature.”
Despite some detractors, Paris is Burning remains socially and politically relevant nearly 30 years after its release.
“It was a really deep and resonant expression of how and why we create identity in this country, including gender, including race, including class, including what we don’t allow people to have and what people insist on taking for themselves anyway,” Livingston says. ” I lived downtown. I was involved in AIDS activism with ACT UP. There was an intensity to the time, of the ’80s—and it’s the same now. There was such inequity between rich people and poor people, and such a celebration of greed. I just felt like intuitively and viscerally that the ball world was a really clear and intense expression of how and why we create identity in this country.”