Credit: Criterion Collection
by Shar Tan Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Paris Is Burning — Jennie Livingston

February 24, 2023

In Starboard Wine, Samuel Delany proposes that “we need images of tomorrow, and our people need them more than most.” Queer life, as it were, is simultaneously lived before and after heartbreak; the historical knowledge of queer death conditions us to anticipate the losses that have yet to come. Ironically, images of our tomorrows can only be envisioned from the quagmires of borrowed time: this paradox is what makes queer utopia an act of failure against the tyranny of pragmatism and heteronormativity. As José Esteban Muñoz writes in Cruising Utopia: “Queerness should and could be a desire for another way of being in both the world and time, a desire that resists mandates to accept that which is not enough.”

Throughout Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning — a landmark 1990 documentary on New York’s ballroom scene in the 1980s — glimpses of utopia and hope appear in the face of unimaginable heartbreak. Scenes of queer happiness and freedom in the ballroom are often interspersed with Livingston’s intimate conversations with drag queens about the abject realities of Black queer and trans life, in which the specters of homelessness, poverty, and premature death make the present feel impossible. What is ordinarily mundane — to be remembered as someone with a birthday — is a miraculous gift. Perhaps what is most extraordinary about Livingston’s film is that it is also a bold exercise against a politics of innocence: Paris Is Burning refuses to make queerness comprehensible or respectable to the straight majority, and instead lets queer interviewees speak for themselves. These participants disagree with each other. They have conflicting ideas of what it means to be queer and gay. They are filled with rage at the cruelty of the world, but also marvel at its beauty. Yet the violence they face still remains the same. And so, they throw birthday parties for each other whenever they can, and form difficult, but loving, families of their own making. Queer life, as Livingston suggests, is defiant because it is incommensurable. It should remain so.

The legacy of Paris Is Burning, however, remains complicated. In an interview with the New York Times in 1993, Pepper LaBeija, one of the more prominent interviewees in Livingston’s film, said she felt betrayed by the director’s false promises, arguing that the film’s success — it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1991 and made four million U.S. during its theatrical release — didn’t translate to adequate compensation for queer participants. Livingston responded that journalistic ethics meant that participants should not be paid, and that it is difficult to put a price on queer lives.

“When Jennie first came, we were at a ball, in our fantasy, and she threw papers at us. We didn’t read them, because we wanted the attention. We loved being filmed. Later, when she did the interviews, she gave us a couple hundred dollars. She told us that when the film came out we would be alright. There would be more coming. But then the film came out and — nothing. They all got rich, and we got nothing.”

This legacy is further soured by Livingston’s response to criticisms about her status as a white filmmaker using Black queer lives for profit: they claimed that Black and Latinx drag queens would not have been able to get a film about themselves properly funded. There is a warped and insidious truth to Livingston’s statement — to this day, white queer filmmakers are given priority and recognition in the film industry. But what is most devastating (and maybe in poor taste) about these words is that the material realities faced by Black trans women — poverty, abuse, and homelessness — are a direct threat that occurs in Paris Is Burning. Most of the participants that Livingston interviewed died prematurely due to state-sanctioned violence and the AIDS crisis, an epidemic in which the many deaths of queer people of color were merely an afterthought. To wit: Venus Xtravaganza was found murdered, at the age of 23, halfway through the documentary’s production; her house mother, Angie Xtravaganza, died of AIDS three years after the film’s release.

These tragedies make Livingston’s work a necessary and precarious archive of queer life. But it also means that the people who contributed to the success of Paris Is Burning in the queer film canon are no longer around to experience a world where Paris doesn’t always burn. This subjects the ethics of Livingston’s work to question, particularly since Venus’ death, as even Livingston noted, isn’t handled with the proper care and depth that she deserved. The documentary reveals what happened to Venus through Angie’s reaction to her death, who tells Livingston that Venus’ fate is “life … as far as being a transsexual in New York City and surviving.” All of Venus’ hopes and dreams — sharing a life with the man she loves in a nice home away from New York — were destroyed even before the documentary’s end. These ordinary dreams, which many interviewees also share, are made potent precisely because Paris Is Burning concludes with a cursory glance at news of Venus’ death. In particular, the fact that Venus was murdered because she was also a sex worker is only ever gently alluded to, but never made too explicit.

The centrality of material labor in queer and trans lives plays a marginal role in Livingston’s account of ball culture. Perhaps the inclusion of the sex work that Venus did for survival didn’t align with the documentary’s focus on the ballroom scene, but as these interviews have shown us, it’s the real, everyday threat of violence outside which necessitates the utopian existence of ballrooms. There is no performance without a world of hurt. What makes Paris Is Burning so bluntly bittersweet up to this day is that the queer longings portrayed in it — the desire for a better life, the yearning to be loved — were unfulfilled then, and remain impossible today. For all its missteps, Livingston’s film is a touchstone in queer cinema because it captures the utter brutality of queer tenacity: to make utopia is to know that you might not live to see it.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.