“Opulence! You. Own. Everything!” 9 Reasons Why We Still Can’t Get Enough Of “Paris Is Burning”

June 12, 2014  |  
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It’s funny the things that Netflix can bring into your life. A documentary lover and ’90s movie buff, Netflix actually recommended that I check out little documentary called Paris is Burning a few years ago, and after watching Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. for the umpteenth time, I decided to give this film a try. I have watched it about three more times since. Not only is it extraordinarily entertaining, it’s a landmark film for the lens it puts on ball culture, and the adversities people who participated in them dealt with. And we’re not just talking about being part of the LGBT community, but also being poor, and being black and Latino in New York City in the mid-to-late ’80s. But this isn’t a sad documentary, it’s more of a celebration of a culture and a very special time. In honor of LGBT Pride month, I wanted to show love to a documentary that is a must-see by discussing the 10 best things about it.

A Breakdown Of Voguing

Don’t let Madonna fool you. Voguing had been going strong way before she busted the move in a music video. In the documentary, folks were voguing for their lives at the balls in Harlem, especially Willi Ninja, who is often called the “godfather of Voguing” and taught Madge the iconic dance. Don’t try this at home if you’re not serious because you might pull something.

Pepper LaBeija

Pepper was the head of the House of LaBeija when the documentary was filmed, and getting to know him for those 78 minutes was a treat. The style, the long thumb nail, the confidence, the knowledge that was dropped–Pepper was fierce, honey. And not only that, but the house “mother” provided House of LaBeija members (or “children”) with the support and encouragement they needed. When Pepper passed in 2003 at the age of 53 after dying of a heart attack, the New York Times called her the Queen of Harlem Drag Balls.

The Ball Culture

Probably THE best part of the documentary is watching the extravagant balls take place. Some show off their best dance moves, bodies and looks, while others participate in different categories for prizes and trophies by trying to dress and pass as different social classes and more through their style. The different Houses (from Xtravaganza to St. Laurent, LaBeiija, Pend’avis, etc.) competed against one another for the sky-high trophies and bragging rights.


Venus Xtravaganza

Small but packing a lot of personality, Venus Extravaganza’s story was very interesting to follow, and very sad to watch come to an end. She had big hopes for herself, including getting married and living really, really well: “I would like to be a spoiled rich white girl.” To help reach those goals, Venus often found herself having sex with men for money. Sadly, after watching scenes of her “reading” her friends, performing at balls and speaking about her life in that high voice with that high hair, viewers found out that she was murdered.  A man she had a sexual encounter with found out she was born with male parts and strangled her. A sad end to such a life with a lot of potential and big dreams.

The Shade, Oh The Shade…

Before NeNe, Kenya and all the Real Housewives of Atlanta were talking about shade, they were breaking it down for you in Paris is Burning. The differences between reading and shade were explained by Dorian Corey, who said that shade came from reading (“the real art form of insult”), and the reading done in the film is quite epic (“You wanna talk about reading?  You just can’t take it. You’re just an overgrown orangutan”).

Dorian Corey

Speaking of Corey, the famed drag queen explained a little bit of everything about ball culture to the audience, doing so in the comfort of her overcrowded apartment while applying makeup (or already rocking a beat face). I was entertained by her as she was the oldest person documented in the film, and spoke of the changes in ball culture over the years. Definitely an interesting individual with some skeletons in her closet. No, really. It was reported that when Corey passed, a dead body was found hidden in that same overcrowded apartment years after the movie came out.

Octavia St. Laurent

I enjoyed Octavia’s story because like Venus, she was determined to make it, but worked to make her dreams come true in a different way. A striking beauty, outside of ball participation, Octavia was filmed trying to get noticed by Eileen Ford and Ford Models, and amongst the leggy blondes and beauties, Octavia stood out. And yes, I loved her intricate baby hair…

The New Definition Of Family

Being rejected by the people who should love, nurture and embrace you is part of the reason many people (again, “children”) felt such loyalty and a connection to the houses they were a part of. They took on the last name of the houses, and they all bonded, competed and threw shade at one another. Many kicked out of their homes found a new home and freedom with their house mothers, fathers and family.

The Discussion Of Social Issues

While most of the individuals interviewed had big personalities and were quite the humorous individuals, many had been through a lot and still were struggling to live out their dreams and be respected. Many issues were covered in the film, including poverty (many interviewed wanted to be wealthy, but some had to have sex for money, steal designer clothes and even some food at times in the film), feeling rejected due to homophobia, reassignment surgery, AIDS, and dealing with racism. There was so much to learn from this movie, and that’s probably why so many appreciate it to this day.

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