Jennie Livingston's 1990 film broke ground with moving portrayal of New York's underground LGBT community and its vibrant ball scene
The FX television series Pose has won praise for its depiction of the underground ball scene of late 1980s Harlem, where gay and trans people of color created a refuge from a world hostile to their identities. Pose is fictional, but the real scene was portrayed unforgettably in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.
A restored version of Jennie Livingston's nonfiction classic, ranked as one of the top 100 documentaries of all time by Paste magazine, opens in Los Angeles on Friday (July 5) at Landmark's Nuart Theatre for a one-week run. It expands nationwide in the coming weeks.
I felt so moved by the film when I saw it almost 30 years ago. What touched me most was seeing people build alternative family structures for themselves after being rejected by their birth families and the larger society. Those family structures were the houses -- House of LaBeija, House of Xtravaganza, House of Ninja, for instance -- that young members of the ball scene would join, presided over by a nurturing mother figure.
It's fascinating to see the film again so many years later when gay rights not even dreamed of at the time have been enshrined into law (same-sex marriage, principally). But the violence, limited economic opportunity and transphobia experienced by trans people remains not much changed -- witness controversies over "bathroom bills" and any number of initiatives from President Trump, including his ban on trans servicemen and women in the military. In 2018 more than two dozen trans people were murdered, most of them transgender people of color, Human Rights Watch reported. At least five black transgender women have been murdered so far this year.
A basic struggle for survival, dignity and acceptance goes on.
Watch the trailer for the restored Paris Is Burning here:
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.