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Paris Is Burning’ Returns In New Digital Restoration

Documentary on Harlem drag scene of 1980s screens at Digital Gym Cinema

Photo credit: Janus Films

Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary about the Harlem drag scene, "Paris is Burning," gets a digital restoration and re-release just in time for Pride.

Companion viewing

"Hairspray" (1988, or anything with Divine by John Waters)

"Priscilla Queen of the Desert" (1994)

"Ma Vie En Rose" (1997)

The digital restoration of "Paris is Burning" (opening at Digital Gym Cinema) offers a perfect companion to the Legendary Drag Queens exhibit at the San Diego History Center and a great way to get ready for Pride.

Today RuPaul has a TV show all about looking for the next drag superstar but back in the 1980s drag wasn't as well known and accepted in the mainstream.

By Reporter Beth Accomando

The digital restoration of "Paris is Burning" (opening at Digital Gym Cinema) offers a perfect companion to the Legendary Drag Queens exhibit at the San Diego History Center and a great way to get ready for Pride.

Filmmaker Jennie Livingston took audiences into the Harlem drag scene of the 1980s to explain where voguing came from and how to properly throw shade (Dorian Corey's explanation is perfection). Livingston spent seven years getting to know the African American and Latinx members of Harlem’s drag houses to create an intimate portrait of how they confronted racism, homophobia, transphobia, and poverty with a defiant sense of style and inspiring artistry.

The film lays out the challenges in its first scene as someone recalls his father’s warning that being black, male and gay means you start with three strikes.

"And he said if you are going to do this you are going to have to be stronger than you ever imagined."

For the people in the film that strength develops through a particular kind of artistry that allows them to defy the status quo, rebel against conventions, and demand attention through their outrageous style.

The film features Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Octavia St. Laurent, Dorian Corey and Venus Xtravaganza who all share their personal stories and dreams.

Venus, reclining on her bed, confesses to the camera, "I wanna get married in a church in white … I wanna be a complete woman. I wanna be a professional model behind cameras in a high fashion world."

Her desires are all the more tragic and poignant because before the film was finished, she was brutally murdered and her killer never found. The head of the Xtranvaganza house, Angie, notes that's just the reality of being a "transexual in New York City."

Although much of the documentary is filled with inspiring artistry and defiance, Venus' death highlights the dangers that gays and members of the trans community faced then and sadly still face now. The beauty and power of the film is that it captures how these gay and trans people triumph over prejudice, oppression, and economic disadvantage. Without exception, Livingston introduces us to extraordinary people many of whom are no longer with us.

As Pride approaches, it’s good to remember the past to see how things have changed and how much more still needs to be done. Kudos to Livingston for taking the time to get to know these people and their world and to try and accurately and compassionately present it to a more mainstream audience.

"Paris is Burning" is playing for one week at Digital Gym Cinema starting Friday.

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