"Paris is Burning" (1990) Review
The turn of the 1990s was incredibly important to documentary filmmaking.
In 1994, filmmaker Steve James would release one of the most famous documentaries of the decade, Hoop Dreams, about inner-city Chicago boys with the dream of becoming star basketball players. In film critic circles, it was an absolute darling, beloved nationwide, which was why the Academy Awards that year were so baffling. Hoop Dreams was nominated for Best Film Editing at the Oscars, but was nowhere to be found in the Best Feature Documentary category. It caused an uproar, spearheaded in particular by legendary film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, who exposed the absurd nomination process for documentaries. I won't go into too much detail here, but it explicitly did not involve documentary filmmakers but did involve six men with flashlights. Yes, really.
The nomination process was overhauled after that, but Hoop Dreams was not the start of that conversation and not the focus of this review. Hoop Dreams was the documentary that broke the Oscars. Paris is Burning was one of the many films that caused the pressure to mount.
Paris is Burning wasn't the first documentary to be snubbed for a nomination at the Oscars, but it was one of the most prolific, seemingly timed to a cultural shift that went well beyond film. Paris is Burning chronicles the mid to late 1980s drag queen scene in New York City, and all the chaos that came with it. Beyond going to the Savannah College of Art and Design and attending a couple of drag shows in a bar called The Jinx, I have no affiliation with LGBT culture whatsoever. I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on LGBT culture and while I have plenty of friends that are LGBT, I'm not going to pull them out here as some kind of qualifier for my own knowledge. I'm not the best source for understanding and knowing the cultural significance of Paris is Burning.
That's all to say that if you're willing to give Paris is Burning a chance, you don't need to have a deep understanding of LGBT culture up front. Paris is Burning is a deep dive into a world that I never knew existed at the depth that it does. If I learned one thing about drag queens from Paris is Burning, it's the strange mocking roots of the practice, the idea that being fabulous was a reflection of an unattainable world of money and power that was never afforded to the participants. The glam exterior is a mask, but the mask is clear. The drag queen performances are a front and a revealing of the individual all at once.
And that's the most surface level read of Paris is Burning. The fact is that the drag parties and the "houses" they took place in acted as community centers for LGBT youth cast out into the street by bigotry, which was hitting a fever pitch during the AIDS crisis. Paris is Burning's cruelest asset is time, operating in time jumps. I'll warn any newcomer to Paris is Burning to not get too attached to some of the people you're going to see. Time, hand in hand with bigotry, is going to cut their lives short.
Paris is Burning literally dances between the extremes of fabulous joy and crushing reality, sometimes in a single edit. Documentaries aim to be relevant for their time, but the best documentaries can put you in that exact timeframe. Paris is Burning is a time capsule of a point in American history that we're lucky was documented at all. The dancing term "vogueing" was more or less introduced into the American cultural consciousness with the documentary's arrival along with the first glimpses of now famous drag queens.
Beyond the culture it depicted it had ripples in the film community, as previously mentioned. Despite being seen as easily one of the best documentaries of the year and cleaning up award shows across the country, from film critic societies to prestigious film festivals, it was not even nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards. In the late 1980s through the early 1990s, the Best Documentary Feature category came under intense scrutiny, and while Hoop Dreams ended the conversation, Paris is Burning wasn't even the beginning of the conversation. Documentaries like The Thin Blue Line, Roger and Me, and Shoah had all been snubbed in previous years, and all three of those are considered to be some of the best documentaries of their time.
In a strange way, it's almost a point of pride that Paris is Burning wasn't nominated, it's a hell of a thing to end up in a pantheon of some of the greatest snubs of all time for documentaries that are undeniable masterworks (Shoah in particular, which if you've never heard of, look it up, and at least think about watching it). Not to put down the documentaries that were nominated for the Oscars in 1990, but none of them are in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, but Paris is Burning was added in 2016. It's a cultural landmark, and deserves to be recognized as such.
In the lead up to the Oscars this week, it felt like the right time to revisit Paris is Burning and remind people of just how great it is. I'm always excited to see who wins the Oscars each year, but a film like Paris is Burning is a reminder that sometimes the awards really don't matter, and that great films find a way.