I was a little too young to appreciate it when I first saw Paris is Burning, the 1990 documentary by Jennie Livingston that takes us inside Ball culture in late 80s New York. I liked it then because it was funny, clever and got me listening to Cheryl Lynn. The second time, a few years ago, it was all of those things while at the same time tragic and thought-provoking. Watching it again now, the list of adjectives would be longer than the film itself (only 78 minutes). With Steven Tyler dressing up and calling himself Pepper LaBeija for American Idol earlier this month, Paris is Burning has lasted this long and isn’t going anywhere.
‘I went to a ball, I got a trophy, and now everybody wants to know me.’
So what is ‘Ball culture’? Balls sprang up in the 1960s within the impoverished LGBT African American and Latino communities, extravagant events where contestants ‘walk’ and are judged, like an ultra-competitive high-fashion runway.
‘The society… a football game, a basketball game, that’s their entertainment… a Ball is ours’
Based around categories like Butch Queen, Best Dressed or Sex Siren, the walkers perform to an adoring audience who all dream of going on to compete themselves. For many of them the clothes they walk in are shoplifted and they themselves are homeless. Balls became a window into the rich white lifestyle in Executive or Runway, every contestant seeking fame or just to be close to the stars: competing in Legendary or Iconic.
‘A Ball, to us, is as close to reality as we’re ever gonna get to that… fame and fortune and stardom and spotlights.’
‘Crossing into the looking glass’
Even watching as a kid, the Balls looked ridiculously fun. The music is high energy, 70s disco and 80s synth-pop, with grooves of MFSB and Barry White mixed in. Got To Be Real gets a special mention, a song that has since and will always be somewhere in my top five. Over the music, the MC gets the viewer going as much as the crowd, hyping and critiquing the contestants.
‘An evening bag is a must! You have to carry something! No lady is sure at night.’
The criticism isn’t limited to the MC, Balls are serious business for everyone in the room. As competitiveness reaches a high verging on physical fights, we see the walkers ‘Reading’: pointing out flaws and exaggerating them to get a rise out of each other. ‘Throwing Shade’ takes it deeper. Picking at insecurities might seem harsh but Ball culture can be absolutely brutal.
‘Shade is I don’t tell you you’re ugly, but I don’t have to because you know you’re ugly…’
The dancing could have its own film, from settling differences with dance-battles to ‘Voguing’, where walkers rapidly move between cover-star poses to create something like a stop-motion photoshoot. Willi Ninja is the master, eventually appearing in the video for Madonna’s Vogue, and just watching him dance is an education. He has the most focus of any interviewee, using the Balls to experiment and ‘perfect his craft’ before moving on to better things.
‘I want to take it to the real Paris and make the real Paris burn.’
‘Got To Be Real’
From the ‘soft love’ between matriarch Pepper LaBeija and her ‘children’ of House LaBeija, to the adoring love of cheeky Freddie Pendavis to his mentor Kim, Paris is Burning is filled with love. When they often fall into self-absorbed dreams of personal success, or Freddie jokes about ‘mopping’ (stealing) hundreds of dollars worth of food, we don’t judge them. We’ve already fallen in love with the characters. What makes it really interesting is that these aren’t characters, these are real people. Livingston is absent, a silent camera, so they are given free reign to create an image for themselves that we take as the truth because it feels so real.
The idea of ‘realness’ is an important one to the community, with categories like ‘Thug’, ‘Pretty Boy’ or ‘School Boy’ dedicated to passing as hetero males, and ‘Female realness’ showcasing ability to blend in as a hetero female. Here, it’s not hard to see the Balls reflecting a simpler dream: not to be a star, but to be ‘normal’. For me, the ‘realest’ moment of the film comes when Octavia St Laurent and Venus Xtravaganza admit, between fantasies of magazine covers and stardom, that they just want to be the women they were born as, inside a male body.
‘I want to live a normal, happy life. Whether it’s being married and adopting children, whether it’s being famous and rich…’
‘I wanna get married in church, in white.’
These aspirations are so pure that for a moment we forget this is a documentary, and the hope of a fairytale ending makes it kick so much harder when we find out what actually happened to them. The stories of Ball walkers who found some success since seem shallow next to the reality that these dreamers were facing.
‘You’re gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined.’
This reality is the ‘three strikes’ described in the very first voiceover: Being black, male and gay. The Balls are a chance to be all three of these things and belong.
‘You go in there, and you feel… you feel 100% right being gay,’
Add to that the bombardment of 80s opulence through TV shows like Dynasty, high fashion magazines and a more-is-more ethos, money becomes the dream. Through the extravagance of the Balls, they can live the fantasy of being a rich, white American.
‘Why is it that they can have it and I didn’t? I always felt cheated.’
As a shelter from a world of AIDs, prostitution and poverty, the Ballgoers never lose the love for the show, but veterans like Pepper LaBeija develop an understanding that the family they build within the culture becomes more important than escaping. The ‘children’ need a mother, and any riches that happen to come her way will be shared lovingly with them. A more realistic outlook, but still extravagant and never cynical, as befits a ‘Legend’ of the Ball circuit.
‘As you get older, you aim a little lower.’
Throughout the film, we see aging Ball veteran Dorian Corey meticulously applying makeup for a performance that is never shown. So alien to the next generation, 13 year-old street kids telling us ‘what the gay life is about’, Dorian saw Ball culture grow from nothing, and we see a distant observer in her dressing room, with her cat, musing on the way things have changed.
‘The children these days… wouldn’t know what a ball was if it knocked them on the head.’
As with so many of the subjects, she has an eloquence it’s hard to believe wasn’t scripted, and as the last word before the credits roll she reels off a poignant monologue that alone makes the film worth watching. The temptation to quote it here is too much to resist, so I won’t, but just one line to finish since you should really watch it anyway.
‘If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.’
The full documentary is free to watch online: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWuzfIeTFAQ
By Michael Lane