Written for the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series hosted by the wonderful Nathaniel at The Film Experience. Pick your "best shot" from the week's movie and join us!
I don't really know how to talk about Paris is Burning.
When something is as groundbreaking, as important, as Jennie Livingston's documentary is, how does one even begin to talk about it?
I'm not a queer theorist. I've never taken a gender studies class. I'm just one gay man out of thousands, who did (truly, truly terrible) drag once in college as a favor to a friend. And when talking about drag queens, as RuPaul's Drag Race has shown recently, it is very easy to step in it without even knowing.
Paris is Burning remains an essential watch to this day primarily because it so excellently captures a specific time and place and people that no one else in America was looking at: The Drag Houses of New York City in the late 80s/early 90s. In fact, people still don't really look at them, outside of the few who have made Logo's reality competition series a minor cable hit (the impact of the show outside gay culture is minimal).
And on top of all that, Nathaniel wants us to pick the film's "Best Shot". Documentaries are not generally known for their cinematography, as they generally go about telling their story as truthfully as possible. In documentaries, words are usually more important than pictures. And here, a lot of the film's most arresting images stand out because of the fabulous creatures that fill them - the drag queens that positively set the screen on fire with their Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent - and not really for any particular genius of framing or motion or lighting. WHAT cinematographer Paul Gibson's camera captures, in other words, is far more interesting than HOW he captures it. Not that there aren't some lovely images that capture 80s NYC perfectly, as the below image illustrates.
I've seen Paris is Burning twice over the past six months now, and for me, the heart of the film is in the recurring interview scene of Dorian Corey in her dressing room putting on makeup, endlessly preparing for a ball. Corey has a very dry sort of wit, and it's these scenes that contain the most history of drag/ball culture, as well as general information on being a drag queen (it's Corey who provides this legendary definition of shade: "I don't tell you you're ugly, but... I don't have to tell you, because you know you're ugly."). When watching a documentary, I find it even harder than in a narrative feature to separate an image from the words that accompany it, and the combination of images and words that had the largest impact on me was this one:
Hooray for you, straight, white world. You are fine just as you are. You can walk out the door with nothing on and no one would bat an eye and you would still have your money and your respect and your social standing. But the subjects of Paris is Burning can not. And if they did, they might not make it back to their homes alive (RIP Venus Xtravaganza). In order to go out, to be who they are, the subjects of Paris is Burning (and the generations of gay men who have come after, be they drag queens or otherwise) have to spend hours in front of a mirror, telling themselves whatever they need to in order to give themselves the confidence and self-esteem they need to get the only honor they can: A trophy from a ball. They will in all likelihood not get the chance to be an executive, or a movie star, or even a suburban housewife. But for those precious few moments when they are walking in a ball, they can own the world. Just like you do every day.
If I had to guess, that is the ultimate message of Paris is Burning. That when these enterprising people couldn't get anywhere by being themselves in the "real world", they created their own space, a safe space, where they could not only be themselves, but be rewarded for being the best version of themselves they could be. It's the story of America itself, and these people, who you would likely only look at with disdain or confusion if you passed them on the street, are living that story every damn day, no matter how hard it gets or how few people notice they're here. But here they are. And here they'll stay.
* * *
This shot also sticks out in my mind because of two other scenes that had an impact in 2014: One in the film Belle, in which Gugu Mbatha-Raw's colonial-era mulatto woman, born into wealth in a society that does not know how to handle her, sits in front of a mirror and tries to wipe off the color of her skin, wishing that she could somehow not be what she is. The other, in the TV show How To Get Away With Murder, in which Viola Davis's black attorney sits in front of her vanity and removes the makeup and wig she has to wear in order to command respect on a daily basis, and under which she hides the scared, uncertain parts of herself. It's interesting that these scenes, both undeniably powerful, involve someone taking off (or trying to take off) makeup.
I don't know what my larger point is here, or if I even have one, but it was something that struck me.