'Paris Is Burning' sifts through ashes of Harlem's drag scene


September 25, 1992|By Scott Hettrick


(Academy Entertainment, 1991)

"I remember my dad saying you have three strikes against you: being black, male and gay," says an unseen subject of this critically acclaimed documentary directed by Jennie Livingston. The film, produced in 1990 and released last year, examines the phenomenon of Harlem's circuit of homosexual drag balls from 1987 to 1989 and the fascinating personalities of its participants.

For these men, whose desire it is to be something other than what they are -- in one case, "a rich white girl" -- the drag balls represent a rare opportunity to feel "normal" and accepted. "You feel 100 percent right," explains one. "The ball is as close to reality as we're going to get." This "reality" consists of hundreds of male contestants dressed primarily as women who "walk" as models at the balls, competing for awards in innumerable categories. Many of the "walks" also involve a pose-oriented dance form that is known as "vogueing," a dance style that Madonna recently popularized in song.

Although the unique ball is the centerpiece and the catalyst for the film, it is also the most tedious aspect. Too many contestants are featured, making the 76-minute running time seem nearly twice as long. Of far greater interest and significance are the interviews with the participants and the "mothers" of the fraternity-like "houses" who nurture and train hopeful ball walkers and otherwise lost young boys (some of them only 15) who have been ostracized from their families and society.

One such house mother, Pepper Labeija, speaks proudly of her 20-year reign, during which she shepherded many aspirants. "A house is a family," she says, comparing it to a street gang that chooses to have balls instead of fights.

But the film also exposes the less amusing aspects of the events, such as the "mopping" (stealing) and whoring that goes on for participants to raise money for their extravagant costumes. The documentary finally reaches its fullest potential near the end when several subjects offer an introspective view of their lifestyles and ambitions. One fantasizes about being a famous professional female model. Others talk about having sex-change operations or their fears of being infected with the AIDS virus.

Many long for the kind of fulfillment they seem to realize they will never find. "I want to be a complete woman," says one young man. "I want to live a normal, happy life."

Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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