TV: Current TV Breaking Off Some Red-Hot Drag Realness
Need a reason other than Smuggy Smuggersons (the ever-lovely Keith Olbermann) to watch Current TV? Here’s one that’s the exact opposite of an obnoxious white guy in a suit: Paris Is Burning. To borrow a ballroom phrase, this documentary IS EVERYTHING. Morgan Spurlock must agree, because he’s listed the film as one of his picks in the Current TV show 50 Documentaries To See Before You Die. It’s good that they didn’t ask me to do the show, because it’d be a much shorter list, but Paris Is Burning would be my #1!
Spurlocks’ 50 Documentaries kicked on Current earlier this month, and lands on numbers 20-11 tonight. Paris Is Burning shares the episode with films like Bowling For Columbine and Food Inc, but there can only be one queen of the hour and we all know which documentary is claiming that crown. As guest commentator Santino Rice sagely notes in the episode: “If you’re gay and you haven’t seen Paris is Burning, your pass is revoked.” Quick side note: if Santino is not in season 4 of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, I am going throw dishes!
But Santino’s right. The first time I saw Paris Is Burning I had already worked for two years as a host at Perry’s Sunday drag brunch in DC. I’d already seen two seasons of Ru Paul’s Drag Race! And all these small gestures, attitudes, and slang terms that I associated with drag culture or even gay culture at large just leapt out at me. I felt like I had walked into a room of people laughing years ago, and someone just now told me the joke that I missed. More importantly, Paris Is Burning in a small way helped me feel more connected to gay culture and our hard-won history.
The documentary, directed by Jennie Livingston, centers around the drag ballroom scene of the mid- to late-1980’s in Harlem. The balls were a place for homosexuals, transsexuals, transvestites, and queer culture in general to live proudly and loudly; each ball consisted of individuals “walking” in runway competitions ranging from vogue-offs to executive realness. Voguing was invented here, later inspiring Madonna to do her thing. Beneath this celebration, though, the film explored the broader context of the lives of the people who went to these balls, which in some cases were tinged with poverty, homophobia, racism, and AIDS.
So, is it fair for me to claim the culture portrayed in the movie? A lot of the struggles captured in the documentary are far removed from my own life experience. What really strikes home for me, though, besides the sobering realization of how fortunate I am not only as a person but as a gay man to have come from where I come from, is the sense of pride and joy. In the face of lives that might from the outside look bleak or at least extremely challenging, the people in Paris Is Burning find a way to celebrate and express themselves, unbroken.
In 50 Documentaries To See Before You Die Morgan Spurlock goes to Pittsburgh to investigate the ballroom scene. Think Spurlock’s got what it takes to strike a pose worthy of joining the legendary House of LaBeija? I don’t either, but it should still be worth seeing.
You can catch a quick clip of the episode here:
The episode of 50 Documentaries To See Before You Die featuring Paris Is Burning airs tonight (Tuesday, August 23rd) at 9pm ET
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