Paris Is Burning is a 1990 documentary about queer counterculture in New York City in the late 1980s.
It mainly follows several drag queens and transgender women as part of the Balls — Ru Pauls Drag Race, 80s edition — that comprised their "safe space" meetings. It also largely talks about intersectionality of race and class with being LGBT+.
Featured in the film are other discussions about belonging, in which the families/houses of the Ball world are explained; imagine maybe mafia houses but really camp instead. Some of the more famous ones are LaBeija, Ninja, Pendavis, Xtravaganza, McQueen, Dupree, etc. As is evident, some families are named after elements of fashion, others from things that were exciting, and some fictionalized from a combination of both. Besides this, the structure and interactions of the families are discussed but also shown a lot, with many interviews about families instead focusing on the tradition that has arisen and, importantly, the sense of family that is actually provided by these people when one's own family may have rejected someone or they are living homeless.
There is also the belonging at the Balls discussed, with the idea that no matter where you may be outside or how open as yourself you may be outside, the community at the Balls is something that is rarely found in other locations. Some of the queens also mention how many young gay men who would not be able to afford food or rent would put their efforts into stealing clothes because of the life given at the Balls. Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, and Sol Pendavis also all separately discuss the differences between earlier Balls and the ones current at the time in the expansion of competition categories. Originally, it was quite simple, and now there are many to incorporate all styles, personas, and budgets. This makes the Balls more welcoming to more people, but they do also put on the nostalgia glasses and suggest with varying levels of animosity that it may have been better before; different reasons being preserving the roots of drag and queer culture in NYC, and that costumes should be made, not bought, with some categories allowing people with enough money to look stylish to win.
The value of winning at the Balls is another big issue, with one trans woman being consistently successful at the Balls enough that she goes into modelling and is overwhelmed at how many women are there, and how many have much better portfolios than her. This further solidifies the idea that the Balls are/should not be about the winning, but the taking part. Healthy competition is encouraged, however, as it really does further create community (e.g. family vs family) and it provides for the drag culture to really indulge in one of its creations: shade. "Throwing shade" may be a common term now, but it comes from the New York scene and its real meaning may have been bastardized slightly. Originally, it is giving a stealth or backhanded/subtle insult in a way that means the person should already be aware of the fault, or giving a downgraded compliment to imply that there is nothing better to comment on.
Transgender issues are touched on, but there is no big deal made about anybody's ambiguous identity, though it is clear that there are people identifying from all over the entire mess of gender and sexual expressions and identities in the film. Passing is brought up briefly when Pepper notes that you're one of the successful ones if you manage to make it home without being attacked in some way from people noticing the disparity in your appearance after the Ball, and several Xtravaganza sisters talk about how Venus, who is a trans woman, is very good at passing. Sadly, she evidently is not at one point and is killed in a trans- or homo-phobic attack during filming.
Emphasizing the importance of what could be seen as the underground queer culture, the film at one point interviews two young teenage boys who are ethnic minorities and queer-identifying, out walking the streets late at night. They aspire to the Balls, but we don't know what happened to them.
Also shown is vogueing, which got its start in this culture, and with the first outside mention being in a song that samples the movie (and then shortly afterwards again more famously by Madonna). It is a lighter element of Camp that may have originally intended to bring people out of their shell with stylized dance moves and quick movements featuring short poses that are of the melodramatic style common to Vogue magazine. Vogue routines in the movie often have the individual dancing as if they are imagining they are a glamorous model and then combining it with showcasing their outfit and some b-boy style dance moves as still images, connected by fluid movement.
The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and was added to the National Film Registry in 2016.
Nothing to do with the film Is Paris Burning?, except for an obvious joke with the title.
"Paris Is Troping"
- Ambiguous Gender Identity: The performers range from gay men to trans women, hitting on everything in between. In 2 cases it is said that a performer is trans, in 1 case a gay man announces that he loves to dress in drag but doesn't want to be a woman ("that's going too far"), and for the rest part it is completely unstated — including many who have had different stages of gender surgery, some who dress feminine publicly all the time, etc. But it doesn't really matter.
- Documentary: Of the camp subculture among gay and cross-dressing men and trans women in late 1980s New York, centering on their lavish, campy fashion balls.
- Downer Ending: The next-to-last scene reveals that Venus Xtravaganza, interviewed at length throughout the film, was found strangled to death in a hotel room.
- Flaw Exploitation: The read, baby. The best way to throw shade is to read someone and make that precise, almost offhanded shot that gets under their skin and destroys them.
- Homophobic Hate Crime: Venus Xtravaganza, a trans drag performer/sex worker profiled in the film, was murdered whilst the documentary was being filmed. Her murder is still unsolved but it is generally thought that she was killed by one of her clients when he discovered she was trans.
- Interchangeable Asian Cultures: A shot focuses on Ninja's Chinese porcelain statues when he talks about wanting to go to Japan.
- The Ken Burns Effect: Used for just about every still picture in the film, be it photos of the interviewees, or advertisements for drag balls and the like. Most of them are panned and zoomed.
- Modeling Poses: Throughout the film as various transgender and drag queen people strike modeling poses in the Balls. There is also a discussion of vogueing, the dance, and how it grew out of the dramatic poses that models strike on the runway.
- Pig Latin: A completely random moment near the end has a young man on the street demonstrating a variation of Pig Latin in which you add "-ug" to the end of words instead of "-ay".
- The title is a play on the book and film Is Paris Burning?, which is about the liberation of Paris from the Nazis in 1944; or possibly just to the question Hitler posed, asking if they (the Nazis) had succeeded in segregating the community (70 year old spoiler: Paris was burning, but in rebellion rather than subjugation). The theme obviously continues into this documentary, as well as the puns on featuring the latest fashion of Paris and being "flaming gay".
- Near the end, an interview subject says "Bring the camera over, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up."
- Stealth Insult: Or rather "shade", which is stealth insults as raised to an art form in black and Latino queer communities. As explained by Dorian Corey in the documentary, "Shade is I dont tell you youre ugly, but I dont have to tell you because you know youre ugly. And that's shade."
- Stock Footage: A Channel 4 New York news report about a voguing competition held to raise money for AIDS research.
- Talking Heads: Pepper LaBeija, Kim Pendavis, and others appear onscreen to talk about the gay and drag queen scene in NYC in the late 1980s.
- Tragic AIDS Story: Some of the performers, most notably Venus, mention their fear of contracting AIDS. Though Venus dies from a transphobic attack, several other people featured in the documentary did die of AIDS after its completion.