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Category Is: 20 fascinating facts about the controversial yet vital ‘Paris Is Burning’

Image Credit: ‘Paris Is Burning,’ Janus Films

Paris Is Burning, the 1990 documentary directed by Jennie Livingston, was the first piece of mainstream media to shine a light on New York’s ballroom scene. Focusing on a community of drag and trans performers set mostly in Harlem, Paris Is Burning is a vital work highlighting a marginalized community and showing their joys, triumphs, tragedies and chosen families.

With “Pride Season” rapidly approaching, there’s no better time to revisit this electrifying document of queer cultural history.

Here are 20 facts you may not have known about Paris Is Burning.

1. Paris Is Burning took seven years to complete.

Livingston struggled with funding, music licensing and editing the footage to an acceptable documentary length.

3. She started Paris Is Burning as a film school project. 

She told Interview Magazine: “I had to do a documentary assignment for the summer class, so I took the little wind-up Bolex camera and went to this mini-ball, which is now called the Kiki Ball, at the Gay Community Center on 13th Street. I was walking around thinking, ‘What gender are these people? What’s going on?’”

4. Livingston became heavily involved in the queer community as a result of the movie.

Jennie Livingston | Photo Credit: Getty Images

She was an ACT UP activist, according to Criterion.

5. The ballroom community responded enthusiastically to Livingston’s documentary project.

Image Credit: ‘Paris Is Burning,’ Janus Films

“They were totally welcoming,” she told Interview Magazine. First of all, if you knew where to go, you literally had to get the flyer by hand. It was passed around hand-to-hand, or a friend had to tell you the address. There wasn’t an internet. You couldn’t find out about it casually.”

6. Tragically, one of the film’s subjects was found dead before the project was completed.

Venus Xtravaganza, a prominent figure in Paris Is Burning, was found murdered on Christmas Day 1988 at the age of 23. Filming for the documentary wasn’t finished, and her house mother, Angie Xtravaganza, spoke of her death in the film, saying she felt Venus was taking too many risks as a sex worker.

7. Venus’ murder was never solved.

Venus Xtravaganza. Photo: Miramax

In 2018, Venus’ nephew, Mike Pellagatti, told Billboard: “I don’t think it was taken as seriously as it should have been.”

8. Pose takes a lot of inspiration from the documentary.

Image Credit: ‘Pose,’ Macall Polay / FX

Steven Canals, who created and wrote the FX drama series, explained to IndieWire that the documentary—as well as its critiques from prominent queer thought leaders like Judith Butler and bell hooks—was top of mind for the Pose creative team.

9. One story from the show’s second season mirrors a real-life incident surrounding one of the film’s subjects.

dorian corey

After ballroom legend Dorian Corey’s death in 1993, the preserved corpse of Robert Worley was found among her belongings. Pose fictionalized this tale in the season two episode “Butterfly/Cocoon,” when dominatrix Elektra (Dominique Jackson) hides the body of a dead client in her closet.

10. Some of the surviving subjects of the documentary consulted on Pose.

Via Youtube

“The remaining survivors are very much involved on our series,” writer Janet Mock told IndieWire.

11. Some of the houses mentioned in Pose are actual houses from the ballroom scene.

Image Credit: ‘Pose,’ Eric Liebowitz / FX

You’ll hear names like the House of Pendavis and Xtravaganza—members of which are both highlighted in Paris Is Burning—during ballroom scenes in Pose.

12. The film was also an inspiration for RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Image Credit: ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ Viacom

The library is open! The drag competition series’ traditional “reading” challenge is directly inspired by the witty and cutting barbs made by the ladies in Paris Is Burning.

13. The film was critically acclaimed…

It won the grand prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, among other festival awards.

14. …But garnered some controversy.

Some raised questions about whether Livingston, a genderqueer lesbian, should be the one to tell the definitive story of the drag ball scene, which was predominantly made up of queer people of color, according to The Guardian.

15. Some of the film’s subjects were not happy, either.

Paris Dupree | Image Credit: ‘Paris Is Burning,’ Janus Films

While the subjects were paid for their time and participation, several felt they were not compensated fairly, since the film grossed almost $4 million. Paris DuPree even threatened to sue.

16. Livingston defended the pay situation.

Image Credit: ‘Paris Is Burning,’ Janus Films

“The journalistic ethic says you should not pay them,” Livingston told The New York Times, noting that she felt it was fair to give them some compensation.

17. More controversy ensued in 2015.

Image Credit: ‘Paris Is Burning,’ Janus Films

The Guardian reported at the time that a collective, “Paris is Burnt,” petitioned that a planned screening in Brooklyn with a panel discussion didn’t include any surviving subjects from the movie or any queer people of color.

18. Still, the movie is considered a piece of seminal queer filmmaking.

The Criterion Collection released a special edition for its 30th anniversary in 2020 with over an hour of previously unseen footage.

19. One subject in particular had great success following Paris Is Burning.

Willi Ninja (right) | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Choreographer Willi Ninja, featured heavily, had a successful career as a choreographer following the film’s release and starred in Malcolm McLaren’s music video for “Deep In Vogue.” He also appeared in Janet Jackson videos and made an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Sadly, Ninja died in 2006 at the age of 45 due to AIDS-related complications.

20. Livingston still feels its legacy today.

Image Credit: ‘Paris Is Burning,’ Janus Films

She told Hyperallergic: “While on the set of Pose, this woman told me she was trans, and seeing Octavia Saint Laurent was what enabled her to imagine that she could transition. I hope that is Paris Is Burning’s legacy. You make a film to make a film, but if it can actually have an impact, that’s incredible.”

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