After more than five years of fundraising, shooting, and editing, the documentary Paris is Burning debuts in New York City on March 13, 1991. The groundbreaking look at the culture and characters surrounding the city’s drag ball culture changed the way many people thought about drag, queerness and even documentaries themselves.
Paris is Burning chronicles the “Golden Age” of ball culture in New York, drawing from extensive interviews with drag queens and others associated with the elaborate balls and complex social networks surrounding them. Filmmaker Jennie Livingston had almost literally stumbled across the subject while taking courses at New York University, striking up a conversation with two men whom she saw voguing (a stylized modern dance in which participants often competed at balls) in Washington Square Park. While cobbling together small amounts of funding from disparate sources, Livingston interviewed a cross-section of those associated with the ball, documenting the various categories of competition, extensively cataloguing slang, and conducting tying the experience to larger issues such as the AIDS crisis and the bigotry that routinely faced and even took the lives of the gay, transgender, and otherwise queer subjects of the film.
Paris is Burning was an instant hit, winning prizes at the Sundance Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, the Los Angeles and New York Critics’ Circle Awards, the GLAAD Media Awards, and more. Its failure to garner an Academy Awards nomination, along with the exclusion of other minority-focused documentaries like Hoop Dreams, led the Academy to revise its system for nominating documentaries in 1996. The Library of Congress added Paris is Burning to the National Film Registry in 2016.