The 1990 movie, Paris is Burning is rated 8.2 on IMDb. In all likelihood, you have never heard of this movie. But if you seek to understand the history of Drag, this is a really good start. The movie is real, raw, and an excellent reflection of the times.
Paris is Burning lacks no drama, and is not a sob story. And since it leans towards documentary-styled storytelling, there is no shortage of credibility. The movie opens up to a drag queen talking about himself and tracing the history of black gay men in America. The movie unravels stories and the lives of gay, transexuals, transgender men and women who took part in Drag. The world of drag curated to perfectly encapsulate the fantasies of these many queer individuals.
Paris, Pepper, and Circuits
The mother of the House of LaBeija, Pepper LaBeija, was one of the most popular black drag queens of the time. The drag culture peaked in the 1990s because of queens like her. The queer individuals who were interested in drag came together to form communities and houses. A house is basically like a crew, a family. Where one mother queen took in younger queer individuals and help them perform in balls and put out their drag persona on stage.
Pepper LaBeija was one such mother queen. She took in many drag queens under her wing and performed at many balls herself. The drag culture and system followed back then was so much different than it is today. Most of what we know today comes to us from RuPaul. But in the 1990s, it was an amalgamation of modeling agencies, dance battles, and the everpresent stigma brought in by homophobes. The ball circuits were just events for the queer people to live up to their fantasies.
Pepper LaBeija sets down a tone to the movie, the tone of strength and encouragement to fight the reality and set himself as a Drag queen who was making history. Pepper set the stones of how the audience perceives drag with something that his father told him.
“You have three strikes against this world. Every black man has two. That they are just black and they are a male. But you are black, and you are a male, and you are gay. You are gonna have a hard * time. And if you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined”
The Right Fit
If you have ever wondered why drag? Why would anyone want to perform drag? What is in it for them? Paris is Burning will show you. That the drag culture and performing drag is not only a sense of identity that feels wholesome, but it is also acquiring the wholesomeness that comes with it. It is like living the dream, the fantasy of being someone more than what your birth ascribed to you.
Today, we blur the lines between drag and balls and have lost many components of the then drag culture. Beginning with the categories in which people were allowed to partake to the source of costume inspiration. Even drag underwent commercialisation. The movie will set your record straight. If you want to see how much the drag culture has changed over time will shake your core.
Paris is Burning: Much More Than Drag
As mentioned in the title of the review, there is so much more than the evolution of drag being addressed in the movie. Paris is burning delves into the lives of the performers and tests what the audience sees. Not only does the movie give you the connection between the performances, but also tells you why how the world outside perceived the world inside. It explains the glass between the reality and the fantasy. And also why everyone wanted to get into drag. Drag was not limited, it was elaborative and everyone won. Why? Since drag was not a culture as much as it was a competition that validated every queer individual who did not feel right in real life. It was not an attempt to match the straight community. At least initially.
It began with extravagant costumes, fake pearls, stones, glitter, and shiny accessories. And moved towards expensive clothing that people had to steal because they could not afford it. It was like a huge queer fest that demanded great performance that required you to practice and rehearse. And most importantly give you a shot to rise to fame.
It made you believe that your dream could come true.
And for many, it definitely did. Like the rise of voguing and the star drag queen who made it so popular. It also allowed for the fluidity of sexuality and experiencing it openly. Not only was it one of the biggest experiments that people chose to go through, but it also helped people feel like they belonged. Paris is burning is truly a cleverly crafted piece that does not undermine the tones of ostracisation and still manages to come off as a story of success with an expected set of sacrifices. Here’s a departing line from the movie.
“You go in there, and you feel… you feel a 100% right.”
And sometimes the right for you does not have to be deemed right by the others.