As we observe the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising this Pride month, restorations of two masterful documentaries have come to theaters: Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning (1990) was released June 14, and Frank Simon’s The Queen (1968) will be out June 28. Both films are naturally linked through their studies of drag queens, trans women, and competition, but there are even deeper ties that make seeing both a priority for anybody interested in drag, ballroom, or pageant cultures. What unfolds in The Queen arguably births the world we see in Paris is Burning.
If nothing else, The Queen would be vastly important just for offering queer visibility in the pre-Stonewall era. The film covers the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant at New York City’s Town Hall. Drag queens from far and wide came to take part in this competition, which boasted many celebrities (including Andy Warhol) as audience members. Simon trains his camera on the more compelling drag queens, both on stage and backstage, where the juiciest parts happen. Serving as the pageant’s mistress of ceremonies and the film’s quasi-narrator is Flawless Sabrina (Jack Doroshow). She is introduced putting on makeup, recalling her meeting with a drag queen called Monique in voiceover. When Sabrina asked what her name was before, Monique replied, “There was no before!” This sets up the rich spectrum of identities within this world, one that gradually becomes bigger than the pageant itself.
Throughout the film, medical transitioning frequently comes up as a topic of discussion for the drag queens. Some of them would later undergo the procedure, while others prefer to see their drag identity as costume, such as Sabrina. Many in the pageant’s gawking audience, and even film reviewers at the time, simply described them as “female impersonators,” living in artifice and parody. (In a positive review for the New York Times, Renata Adler called the queens “actors, very conscious actors.”) But Simon shows them as completely serious about this pageant and their craft, even when off the clock and out of drag. It takes a lot of work to pull off a good show and stick out in a crowded field.
This would prove to be especially frustrating for the few people of color in the competition, most memorably embodied by Miss Crystal LaBeija, who reads the pageant’s results and general process for filth after her unfavorable placement. The structural and casual racism she faces as a Black person, having to make her skin look lighter and still being passed over in favor of white contestants, demonstrates how this realm was increasingly unwelcome to her and others like her. Pageants can be great, but often for one very specific type of queen and look. Alternative spaces had to be created.
To that end, LaBeija later founded the House of LaBeija in 1977, and as house mother served as a major figure in bringing modern ballroom culture into the world. This subculture dated back to Black Harlem in the Roaring Twenties, but the House of LaBeija brought the competition and the matriarchal house system to it. In this interactive battleground between participants, judges, and spectators, minority communities would be allowed to thrive and inhabit something more than a drag version of Miss America.
This is what we see in Paris is Burning, which follows these chosen families and their competitions. To look at the film simply as a “drag documentary” misses a lot of the purpose of ballroom culture. It is a home for some supremely talented people who otherwise may never have had a chance to shine. Among the motley crew of misfits in these houses, there are butch queens and femme queens, some of whom are openly trans and have ambitions of bigger things. House Mother Willi Ninja (who is never shown in drag) of House of Ninja is a choreographer, a graceful and agile man who takes from icons like Fred Astaire and turns out powerhouse voguing moves. Then there’s trans woman Octavia St. Laurent of the House of St. Laurent, the subject of a lightning-in-a-bottle scene in which she lingers in the background of a department store while model agency exec Eileen Ford is interviewed by a TV news reporter about the ideal woman. Octavia is that ideal; the audience knows it from seeing her in balls.
For many, the houses and ballrooms are a refuge from a violent and hostile world. The older queens, like Pepper LaBeija (Crystal’s successor) and Dorian Corey, are hardened from years of living this life, but still serve to mother the younger ones, who profess their concerns about the dangers around them. As the film was shot during the late ‘80s, the AIDS crisis and the devastation it was wreaking on queer communities across the country naturally come into play. Livingston’s camera captures many of these people before their untimely deaths, some of whom never even made it to the movie’s theatrical release. 23-year-old trans woman Venus Xtravaganza, one of the major subjects, was murdered during the production. New York, in the midst of major changes, was all too willing to turn the page on oppressed minorities dropping out of sight. Paris is Burning is a time capsule of a city that no longer exists, though the ballrooms persist.
There were breakouts from Paris is Burning, such as Willi Ninja and Octavia St. Laurent (both have now since passed away), but its most immediate effect was voguing, as popularized by Madonna in the song and music video “Vogue.” The film’s other lasting legacy is its lexicon. Words like “shade” (misused to the degree that it is now a catchall term for “insult,” as opposed to its far subtler origins) and “realness” are now said on the regular by people who have never seen or even heard of the documentary. It’s ironic that a society that pushed a whole subculture underground went on to arbitrarily appropriate elements of it sans context. Especially since the themes of ballroom competitions often served as commentaries on whiteness and the dominant culture.
With drag now more visible than ever, from RuPaul’s Drag Race (which feels closer to The Queen than Paris is Burning) to the FX series Pose (which features House of Xtravaganza member Indya Moore in a major role), it is crucial to look back at where it all came from. For too long, it felt as though Paris is Burning was trapped in the ivory tower, only available for white liberal college students who were taught to look at it from a distant, anthropological point of view. Meanwhile, the film was out of print and unavailable to the very demographic it was depicting. The legacies of Paris is Burning and The Queen are both glorious and complicated, what with their negotiations of politics, gender, sex, and race in their respective times. In them we see how popular culture is absorbed by underground performers, who then make it their own, and how over time it then returns to popular culture, now infused with the underground’s movements and language. That is an incredible feat for marginalized people. These documentaries celebrate that spirit while also providing their own grand entertainment.
Paris is Burning is now playing at Film Forum (209 W Houston St, New York). It will be opening in Los Angeles July 5, with a national rollout to follow. The Queen opens at IFC Center (323 6th Ave, New York) on June 28, with a national rollout to follow.