I’ve never been one to watch documentaries for fun unless they pertain to something I’m quite obsessed with such as Metallica (Some Kind of Monster) or large flightless birds (March of the Penguins). Going in to this movie I didn’t know what to expect. From the reading we did before class, “The Slap of Love” by Michael Cunningham, I knew what Paris is Burning was going to be about, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I watched.
Like most documentaries, this one was gritty and to the point but with a subject like transsexual life in the midst of the AIDS crisis, that grittiness is heightened a lot. While a lot of the ball scenes were lighthearted and entertaining, the underlying message was almost depressing. All of these men and women were working night and day to become the best models, dancers, trend setters, etc, in hopes of one day escaping the poverty most of them were born into. That might not seem like an outrageous dream in today’s society, but in the 80s and 90s it was near impossible for a drag queen or transsexual, especially and African American or Mexican one, to be recognized by the white majority. That’s what made this documentary so depressing for me to watch. I heard all of these people talking about their hopes and dreams of being wealthy and famous, but I already knew from the reading and just from their situation that it wouldn’t happen. Many of them in fact ended up sick and dying only a few years after the film was made.
Just because it made me sad didn’t mean I didn’t like it though. This was actually quite an inspiring movie in many ways. I loved the determination these guys/girls showed for what they did. I think many of them knew their dreams would never be fruitful, but they tried their best anyway and never settled for less than perfect performances. The amazing thing was that most of them didn’t even have homes or real families, but they rose above that strife to become the people they dreamed of being at the balls. So in a way, many of them achieved their dreams without even realizing it I think. They all dreamed about being the people they saw walking the streets of Manhattan, and while they may never reach that goal, they could at least experience for short whiles by mimicking it on the runway. So there was hope for them in a way I guess, but it was still sad knowing what coming for so many of the young guys we watched— AIDS, beatings on the streets for being “faggots,” and the misery of never making it out of the poverty they hated so much.