Paris Is Burning is a documentary about the 80s ball culture of New York and the African-American, Latino, gay and trans communities involved in it.
Some critics consider Jennie Livingston's documentary to be an invaluable documentary of the end of the "Golden Age" of New York City drag balls, and a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America.
In 2016, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Made in 1990, the film explores the elaborately-structured ball competitions in which contestants, adhering to a very specific category or theme, must "walk" (much like a fashion model's runway) and subsequently be judged on criteria including the "realness" of their drag, the beauty of their clothing and their dancing ability.
Most of the film alternates between footage of balls and interviews with prominent members of the scene, including Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Angie Xtravaganza, and Willi Ninja. Many of the contestants vying for trophies are representatives of "Houses" (in the fashion-brand sense, such as "House of Chanel") that serve as intentional families, social groups, and performance teams. Houses and ball contestants who consistently won in their walks eventually earned a "legendary" status.
Jennie Livingston, who moved to New York after graduating from Yale to work in film, and who spent six years making Paris Is Burning, concentrated on interviews with key figures in the ball world, many of whom contribute monologues that shed light on the ball culture as well as on their own personalities. In the film, titles such as "house," "mother," and "reading" emphasize how the subculture the film depicts has taken words from the straight and white worlds, and imbued them with alternate meanings, just as the "houses" serve as surrogate families for young ball-walkers whose sexual orientations have sometimes made acceptance and love within their own families hard to come by.
The film depicts people with different gender identities or communities and their different forms of expression. It also explores how its subjects dealt with the adversity oh homophobia, racism, AIDS and poverty. For example, some, like Venus Xtravaganza became sex workers, some shoplift clothing, and some were thrown out of their homes by homophobic parents. One participant was saving money for sex reassignment surgery. According to Livingston, the documentary is a multi-leveled exploration of a subculture in African American and Latino cultures that proves to be a microcosm of society, which was an underappreciated and arguably underground world that many Americans were unfamiliar with. Through candid one-on-one interviews the film offers insight into the lives and struggles of its subjects and the strength, pride, and humor they maintain to survive in a "rich, white world."
Drag is presented as a complex performance of gender, class, and race, in which one can express one's identity, desires and aspirations along many dimensions. The African-American and Latino community depicted in the film includes a diverse range of identities and gender presentations, from gay men to butch queens to transgender men and women.
The film also documents the origins of "voguing", a dance style in which competing ball-walkers freeze and "pose" in glamorous positions (as if being photographed for the cover of Vogue). Artist Malcolm McLaren (with Mark Moore of S'Express and William Orbit) would, two years before Paris Is Burning was completed, bring the phenomenon to the mainstream with his song "Deep in Vogue", which sampled the movie and directly referenced many of the stars of Paris Is Burning including Pepper LaBeija and featured dancers from the film, including Willi Ninja. The single went to #1 in the US Billboard Dance Chart. One year after this, Madonna released her number one song "Vogue", bringing further attention to the dancing style.
However Livingston maintains that the film is not just about "a cute dance." "This is a film that is important for anyone to see, whether they're gay or not. It's about how we're all influenced by the media; how we strive to meet the demands of the media by trying to look like Vogue models or by owning a big car. And it's about survival. It's about people who have a lot of prejudices against them and who have learned to survive with wit, dignity and energy. It's a little story about how we all survive."
Music producers C&C Music Factory sampled some of Paris is Burning in one of the tracks from their Gonna Make You Sweat album, entitled "Bonus" or "Shade". Famous drag queen RuPaul has also sampled a few of the quotes from the documentary in her film Starrbooty, as well as on her TV show RuPaul's Drag Race.