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Defiance and Pathos
on March 20, 2000
In the beginning of this film, one of the commentators says that he was told that he has two strikes against him: he is black and male. But in addition to that, he has a third strike: he's gay. "You're going to have to be stronger than you ever imagined," he is told. "Paris is Burning" is a documentary about gay black and Hispanic men who are tranvestites (men who dress in women's clothing) or transsexuals (people who have The Operation and become, biologically, the opposite sex). They come together and hold "balls" in which they compete in categories like "Executive Realness," "Opulence," and "the Boy Who Robbed You a Few Minutes before Arriving at the Ball." Although several of these categories seem like a satire of society at large, we are told by elder stateswoman/cynic/voice of reason Dorian Corey that "this isn't a parody or take-off. They are very seriously trying to pass as what they are dressing up as." The miracle of "Paris is Burning" is that director Jennie Livingston takes a subject that could have very easily become a freak show and allows the people in it their humanity. We learn their views of homosexuality, men, women, their hopes, their disappointments, their dreams. [...]
This is not a film for everyone. There are shots in this movie of nude transsexuals. It is definitely not for children, and if you have a problem with homosexuality, then this movie isn't for you, either. But if you do see this movie you'll realize "Paris is Burning" isn't really about men wearing women's clothes, it's about a group of people who are routinely marginalized and put down by society at large, and what they do to get a sense of community in their lives.
I've watched this movie four times since it was released in 1991, because it says so many things: it's a commentary about materialism in our culture, about gender roles, about rich and poor people, about the media and what it celebrates, about fame and adulation. "Paris is Burning" is one of the most humane, and one of the saddest, movies I've ever seen.