'Paris Is Burning' Spotlights Queens Of The 1980s

Oct 24, 2019

The "vogue" is a dance style with fast-paced arm and body movements with attitude. It originated from the vibrant drag ballroom culture of New York City's LGBTQ community between the 1960s and 1980s.

The 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, which is showing in the Milwaukee Film Festival, showcases that ballroom culture. The film documents the working class, queer black and Latinx youth and adults who formed groups called "houses." House members walk, vogue and compete in balls for trophies in many inclusive categories — from Butch Queen to High Fashion.

Paris Is Burning filmmaker Jennie Livingston first heard of ballroom culture while walking through Washington Square Park with her camera. She recalls seeing guys standing around a tree saying things like "butch queen and drags." They were dancing and she says they looked great.

"I was like, 'Do you mind if I photograph you?' And they were like, 'No, that's great!' And I photographed them and I was like, 'What are you doing?' They're like, 'It's voguing,' " Livingston explains.

They told her if she really wanted to see what the dance is all about, she should go to a ball. So, Livingston went, and as time went on she got to know people. But what started as a photography project grew into more.

"It really was about story and movement, and culture and sustenance and things that you can certainly address in photographs," says Livingston. "But it really seemed more like it wanted movement, it wanted life, and that began the seven year journey of making that film."

"[They were] creating this world where self-creation and, you know, giving people trophies and applause for expressing identities that society generally hated."

Livingston was drawn to the drag ballroom culture because of the talent and eloquent events. But also because the balls were a place where people could express their identities.

"People were creating a buffer against homophobia, transphobia, racism, and poverty. [They were] creating this world where self-creation and, you know, giving people trophies and applause for expressing identities that society generally hated," Livingston says.

Paris Is Burning has its last showing at the Milwaukee Film Festival on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre.