of Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning at the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival in June 1990.
There are the films that we remember. And then there are the screenings that we can never forget.
Eventually released theatrically by Miramax in 1991, Jennie Livingston’s groundbreaking exploration of the Harlem House Ball circuit, Paris is Burning, made visible a little-known queer black subculture that was swiftly appropriated by the mainstream. More importantly, Paris is Burning made gay men and trans women of color visible to themselves on the big screen. With dignity, humor and pathos the film immortalized such now beloved figures as Pepper Lebeija, Venus Extravaganza, Dorian Corey, Willi Ninja and others — and served as a vitally important conduit of culture, empowering and emboldening a generation.
In June of 1990, the not-quite-finished 16mm film print of Paris is Burning world premiered at the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival at the glorious Castro Theatre. I can honestly say this is the single most exciting film screening I’ve ever attended. The film was being shown in what was called double-system projection — with a separate image track and magnetic sound track. As the projectionist stopped to change reels midway through the film, the sellout audience of 1400 mostly African-American gay men gave it a roaring 10-minute standing ovation — as well as another at the film’s end. The crowd engaged in an amazing call and response banter with the screen throughout the entire film creating the electric atmosphere of a church service.
- Members of various houses of the ball circuit, referred to as "gay street gangs," describe their newfound families. In this scene: Octavia Saint Laurent (Octavia Saint Laurent)
- Members of the ball circuit explain various categories of ball competition, including military and high fashion evening wear. In this scene: Dorian Corey (Dorian Corey)
Paris is Burning went on to win the festival’s Audience Award for Best Documentary, scooped up awards at major film festivals from Sundance to Berlin, broke box-office records at New York City’s Film Forum where it screened for 23 weeks and was ultimately acquired for mainstream US distribution by Miramax (in a little-filmmaker-that-could story worthy of a behind-the-scenes documentary in itself).
The film has stood the test of time and is as powerful — and in some respects even more powerful — as when it was originally released.
As a queer filmmaker, I certainly aspire someday to make a movie as legendary and amazing as Paris is Burning. But I think the film made an even bigger impression on me as a queer film historian — simply by demonstrating the enormous power of LGBT cinema to impact our lives.
An amazing and true sentence: There have been thousands of LGBT films made in these past few decades — feature films, shorts and documentaries sharing a spectacular array of queer images and stories. Paris is Burning remains among the best of them. Truly: Legendary.
Queer media historian, activist, author, festival programmer, filmmaker and online pioneer Jenni Olson is also one of the world’s leading experts on LGBT film history. She is currently VP of e-commerce and marketing at Wolfe Video and sits on the advisory boards of Outfest’s Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation, Canyon Cinema and Kashish: The Mumbai International Queer Film Festival. Her many experimental documentary films (including the 2005 feature, The Joy of Life) have earned acclaim for their unique cinematic style. Jenni is currently in production on her second feature, The Royal Road — a lyrical new film contemplating butch lesbian desire, nostalgia, Casanova, a history of the Mexican-American War and so much more.
Watch the trailer for The Royal Road below.
Jenni’s short films Blue Diary and 575 Castro St. are available online in their entirety. Click to watch below.