NYC Vogue Culture Brought You “Slay,” “Shade,” and Much More

Benny Ninja/Studio Green/Flickr/CC-ND-ND-2.0

September 13, 2017

The avant-garde documentary Paris is Burning, released in 1991, brought New York’s Black ballroom scene to the big screen and illuminated an underground LGBTQ subculture that provided a safe haven to hundreds of marginalized youth.

The film captured a golden moment in the city’s ball culture where individuals freely expressed themselves by dressing in drag, dancing, and competing in runway competitions. Voguing was an essential part of these events that allowed competitors to get rather feisty and flaunt their personality.

These ballroom events were more than just fun; they served political, artistic, and social purposes as well. Ball culture embraced all gay, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals while providing a space for these people who are frequently ridiculed and ostracized by mainstream society to interact and revel in their true identities.

For most of the participants, balls offer an escape from the daunting realities of the real world and allow folks to live out their wildest fantasies. Many of the younger ones have little more than the clothes on their backs, so the opportunity to feel admiration for even a few minutes sustained them until the next event.

One of the most prominent characters in the documentary, Pepper LaBeija, explained that one key aspect of the ballroom event is survival. Here’s one of LaBeija’s most striking statements from the documentary:

“When it comes to the minorities; especially black - we as a people, for the past 400 years - is the greatest example of behavior modification in the history of civilization. We have had everything taken away from us, and yet we have all learned how to survive."

The film also deals with difficult issues facing the Black gay community such as HIV/AIDS, homophobia, and poverty.

While the film has won numerous awards and recently been added to the National Film Registry, it has garnered a fair share of criticism and controversy. Many Black LGBTQ folks have raised questions about the intentions of the white filmmakers and expressed that at times the movie feels as if the characters are turned into a spectacle, erasing the social significance of ball culture.

Nonetheless, Paris is Burning remains a staple in the gay and trans communities as it examines the intersection of gender identity, race, and class in a way no other film has done so effectively. Don’t leave it to us to tell you about the film, experience it for yourself in full here.

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