This Documentary Will Change Your Life

by:   |   Jan 23 2014

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The 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning gives me so many feels that it’s hard to even describe accurately, but I’ll take a crack at it. Filmmaker Jennie Livingston infiltrated the underground “ballroom” scene in NYC in the mid/late 1980s, and got an almost unbelievably intimate look at the participants’ dreams and day-to-day lives. To boil it down to its simplest essence, the ballroom world was a scene in which (mostly young) gay and trans men dressed up and performed for each other in dance halls, in the hopes of winning trophies and prizes for their dancing, costumes, and attitude. They competed in categories like “Executive Realness” (in which competitors dressed up as 1980s business bitches), “Town and Country” (outfits that looked like they would’ve fit right in at a chi-chi Westchester hunting club), and “Butch Queen” (self-explanatory). It’s the subculture that birthed the concept of voguing, introduced the world to “shade,” and gave viewers a peek into a demi-monde that had previously been pretty much closed to everyone, outside of a few hundred men. It’s since become a cult classic, and worshiped by errbody who is anybody—Brooke Candy’s “op-u-lence” neck tattoo is an homage to the movie, and that is just the tip of the glittery iceberg.

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Paris Is Burning is by far the most quotable and unforgettable documentary I’ve ever seen (aside from Grey Gardens, *naturally*); I basically force all my new friends to watch it, and then decide whether or not to proceed with the friendship based on how they react to the film. Beyond the surface elements like the costumes and ultra-insane dance moves, the doc touches on some seriously broad issues, like race, homophobia, and poverty. The ballroom scene was divided into a series of “houses,” essentially teams that lived together as de facto families, complete with “mothers” who took care of the younger members (most of whom had been cast out from their birth families for being gay). The tenderness and kindness these families showed each other will drop your jaw.

Tear-jerking and thought-provoking, it’s also one of the funniest movies on the planet—the scene in which drag star Dorian Corey discusses ambition and hope will have you compulsively giggling. And all the other primary characters—Venus Xtravaganza, Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, and Octavia St. Laurent—are equally fast, mean, and gorgeous.

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Since no still image can ever come close to capturing the magic of Paris Is Burning, I’m going to try to have some gifs do the job. But the movie’s currently streaming on Netflix, so you have lich-rally zero excuses for not watching it tonight, you overgrown orangutan. Once you’ve experienced it, come back and leave a comment explaining how it changed your life.

The amazing Octavia:

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The sweet, tragic Venus Xtravaganza:

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Pepper LaBeija, who delivers some of the flick’s best lines:

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(He woke up like this: Flawless.)


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And some assorted glamour:

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And if you’re still not convinced, check out the trailer:


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The Co-Founder and Ed-in-Chief of G.A.L.