Paris is Burning is a document of the New York drag ball subculture of the eighties, providing a precise record of the intricate minutiae that came to define these LGBTIQ gatherings: the language, the fashion, the behaviour –in such fascinating detail that it remains a cultural touchstone.
Sub-cultures create meaning through specificity. You say this like this, and act like this to set yourself apart from them. While these choices calcify into traditions adopted uncritically, a nascent subculture is a powerful representation of communal identity. An identity created, rather than assumed. Director Jennie Livingston harnesses this by gradually shifting focus from the specifics of the subculture to its people. The last half of the film becomes personal and deeply emotional, centring on their dreams and their cruel reality. It resonates because, by seeing how they choose to live, we see who they are – or, in the case of a performer found tragically strangled to death, who they were.
These men and women wished for stardom. To be icons. While many of them did not live to see it, perhaps there is some modicum of solace to be found that, a quarter-century later, no-one would deny that they are anything but.