Paris Is Burning Review

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Documentary filmmaker Jennie Livingston takes a look back at the Harlem Drag Ball scene of the late '80s, and shows that there's more to the scene than sequins and quaaludes.


A fascinating moment in time is frozen in Jennie Livingston's study of the late-80s Harlem drag ball scene. But, this is much more than a camp record of gay black and Hispanic men posing and preening for outsize trophies. It's also a sobering insight into the aspirations of a doubly excluded sub-class, who are as likely to ape yuppies, soldiers and country gents as they are Vogue models and Vegas chorines.

Equally revealing is the way in which these outsiders form themselves into replacement families around such iconic exhibitionists as Pepper LaBeija and Willi Ninja, whose contrasting ambitions for contentment and celebrity reflect the mixed motives of those who invest so much hope for a better life in this alternative reality that they're prepared to hustle and steal to succeed.

A revealing snapshot of an American counterculture whose political subtext is as intriguing as its camp content.