Near the beginning of “Paris Is Burning” — the seminal 1990 documentary about the Harlem drag balls — a curly-haired, leather-clad Freddie Mercury lookalike talks about the appeal of these underground runway and dance-off competitions outside the legendary Elk’s Lodge uptown. “Go in there and you feel 100 percent right being gay,” he says. “That’s not what it’s like in the real world — it should be, but it’s not.”
The world may be a bit more inclusive now, with a U.S. president who supports same-sex marriage and transgendered heroines Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox appearing on mainstream TV shows and magazine covers. But 25 years on, “Paris Is Burning” — newly restored with anniversary screenings happening throughout the country — remains as vital, as relevant, as tragic and heartbreaking yet sparkling and fabulous than ever.
That’s partially because the gay minority scene it depicts has had an enormous impact on contemporary pop culture — from “voguing” (a series of movements inspired by high-fashion model poses, break-dancing and Egyptian hieroglyphs popularized by the Madonna song) to “RuPaul’s Drag Race” to the term “throwing shade.”
But it’s also because its observations on gender identity and race and class still ring true today. Indeed, the film’s runway competitions not only reward glamour and theatricality. They reward those who most convincingly embody any fantasy — whether that entails being a Hollywood starlet or passing as a straight Wall Street executive or Ivy League co-ed. (And the fact that many in the drag-ball community are poor, black or Latino, and gay or trans means that the idea of going to school or getting a high-powered job is just as far-reaching as becoming Marilyn Monroe.)
Yet, the film is also a testament to the power of community and alternative families and friendship — and the ways one can use dress, movement and even stereotypes as tools of empowerment. “In a ballroom, you can be anything you want,” says one drag queen. “You can become anything or do anything.” It is why the film has remained so beloved, and so powerful.
"Paris Is Burning" will play at Celebrate Brooklyn! at Prospect Park in Brooklyn Friday, June 26, at 6:30 pm. The director, some of the film stars and members of today's ball community will be there. Admission is free. More info here.