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‘Paris Is Burning’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 09, 1991

This world has its superstars, its winners and its upper classes and, rest assured, People magazine is on top of it. But if that world is once removed for many of us, it's twice removed for the people of "Paris Is Burning."

In this touching and funny eye-opener of a documentary, director Jennie Livingston takes us to Harlem, where black and Puerto Rican gay men have been competing ("voguing") for decades in fashion "balls." In these competitions -- part pageant, part surreal theater -- rivals vie energetically for prizes in categories such as "Mother of the Year" or "Butch Queens -- First Time in Drags at a Ball."

"Paris," which runs a brisk and entertaining 78 minutes, is not just "La Cage aux Folles" with melanin. Certainly it's about a flamboyant world of queens with glorious names like Pepper LaBeija and Willi Ninja, who live to out-Iman Iman. But it's also about an alternative community with surprisingly conventional desires to relive the more familiar settings of school, university, office and family -- at least, for one night. Not only do the competitors dress up as beautiful women and Upper West Side matriarchs, they become college students, tough street kids, prissy executives, construction workers and Marines.

The voguing culture calls this "realness," the ability to pose convincingly. "It's not a takeoff or a satire," says Dorian Corey, a delightfully dry, veteran queen who spends his entire interview before the mirror. "It's actually being able to be this."

To participate in a ball, or "to walk a ball," says an off-screen voice, is to "erase all the mistakes, all the flaws, all the shortcomings, to make the illusion perfect."

The illusion, that is, of being the very things they have been denied; the illusion of being that which they have rejected or escaped from.

After leaving traditional -- or impoverished -- beginnings, most of the people interviewed have joined de facto families known as "Houses." These social units, named after real fashion houses such as the House of Chanel, or real drag founders, such as the House of Pendavis, are the soft-gloved equivalent of street gangs. When the house members compete on the floor, they're not just doing it for themselves, they're doing it for their families.

Corey explains other voguing terminology, such as "reading" and "throwing shade." To read is to insult imaginatively -- in opposition to the blunt gay-bashing taunts of the straight world. Reading is gay-to-gay sparring. Thus, when two black queens call each other "black queen," says Corey, "that's not a read, that's just a fact."

Throwing shade is reading at a refined level; it's the curve to the pitch. If someone says they won't call you ugly because you already know, well, you just got thrown a shade. When enmity reaches fever point and pride is involved, it's time for voguing. This is direct competition, when contenders take their fight to the ball floor: the equivalent of jousting, dueling or stepping outside the bar.

"If everybody went to balls and did less drugs, it'd be a fun world, wouldn't it?" concludes Corey.

Venus Xtravaganza would have agreed initially with this sentiment. An attractive Puerto Rican teenager who always wanted to be "a spoiled, rich, white girl," he's full of sweetness and good humor. He's also waiting for an operation to change his little "personal problem down there." Unfortunately, as we are to find out, Venus will never enjoy that transformation. The lovely little soul that speaks so amiably for the camera is now a memory. What happens to him brings a highly saddening note to the movie, and loads "Paris" with explosive meaning.

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