‘Paris Is Burning’: ‘Pose’ Writers and Creators Reflect on Landmark Documentary

For generations of queer people and people of color, “Paris Is Burning” offered a rare glimpse of a more colorful and love-filled future than they ever could have imagined. Jennie Livingston’s seminal 1990 documentary chronicled New York’s ballroom scene in the mid-to-late ’80s, introducing the world to vogueing, reading, shade, house culture, and a rich tapestry of the magnetic drag queens, trans women, and queer street kids who give the film its palpable magic.

“Paris Is Burning” was a massive critical hit, winning both the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1991 as well as the Teddy Award for Best Documentary from the Berlinale. Nearly 30 years after “Paris Is Burning” first struck a pose in the cultural milieu, a new restoration of the queer cinema classic has been re-released in select theaters this month. However, with great success comes great scrutiny; over the years, “Paris Is Burning” has walked more categories than any of its dancers.

Over at Vanity Fair, K. Austin Collins praised the film’s positive achievements, while explaining its complicated legacy. “It was directed by a white filmmaker with relative financial and social privilege: a complete outsider to ball culture,” Collins writes, adding that the film’s festival accolades and rave reviews in mainstream publications were “all signs, to some, that the movie was intended from the outset to be consumed by white audiences.”

This month, the second season of FX’s ballroom drama “Pose” tackles the mainstreaming of ballroom through the lens of Madonna’s “Vogue,” which was released the same year as “Paris Is Burning.” “Pose” co-executive producer, writer, and director Janet Mock said “Pose” would never reference “Paris Is Burning,” since the two projects exits in “parallel universes.” With the benefit of hindsight and the massive Ryan Murphy machine behind it, “Pose” has deliberately brought voices to the table from the ball community, the trans community, and the African-American and Latinx communities. Livingston directed an episode of “Pose” this season, one sign that “Paris Is Burning” has been embraced by the “Pose” creative team.

Below, the creators, writers, producers, and directors of “Pose” share their thoughts on the legacy of “Paris Is Burning”:

What does “Paris Is Burning” mean to you?

Ryan Murphy (co-creator/executive producer/write/director): I always loved “Paris Is Burning,” and when I met with four of the survivors when I was writing the pilot with Steven [Canals] and [Brad] Falchuk, I just liked the world. That idea of like, I’m poor and struggling and yet I want to be somebody in the world is what I sort of locked into.

Janet Mock (co-executive producer/writer/director): To me, “Paris Is Burning” is such a gift in the sense that it introduced me to a world and to people who were very much like me. I saw it when I was in high school at my friend’s house on VHS and it was powerful to be introduced to Octavia, to Venus, and to Corey. And for me, I think it’s a gift that [Jennie Livingston] was there at the time, because we know that many of those people are not here today. The remaining survivors are very much involved on our series. Yeah, there’s a complicatedness of whose gaze? Who controls the camera, who’s behind it?

Steven Canals (co-creator/executive producer/writer): I think you can watch a documentary like “Paris Is Burning,” which is great, and I think it’s a very entry level 101, and I don’t say that in a pejorative way. It’s an entry point for folks when it comes to ballroom, but there’s so much more to the community.

How much is “Pose” in conversation with “Paris Is Burning”?

Mock: I feel like we’re in parallel universes to ‘Paris Is Burning,’ so we would never reference that on the show. Our mainstreaming moment would be Madonna choosing to do “Vogue,” getting choreographers and dancers from the scene, and then mainstreaming it.

Canals: I personally would say quite a bit. Obviously, I have read Judith Butler and bell hooks and all the critiques around “Paris Is Burning,” so I think those were conversations that our writers’ room, we were engaged in during the first season of the show. The critiques being that the documentary highlights the community, but is also directed by a cis white woman, and so how would the documentary have been different had it been directed by someone who was black or brown or someone who was from the community, right?

I think that we’re hyper aware of that on our show, and obviously if you look at our writers’ room, we’re a diverse group. So we have trans people, we have cis people, we have black and brown people, but we also have white people in our room, so we’re constantly engaged in those conversations with one another. I think you probably will see the show being more in conversation with the documentary this season, because we start the season with the community being introduced to the mainstream vis a vis Madonna’s “Vogue.” And we see the ripple effects of that for the community throughout the course of the second season. So I think there’s more texture there.

How can cinema about the ballroom scene move beyond ‘Paris Is Burning’?

Canals: We’ve never shied away from it. We engaged in it, we absolutely as a group were engaged in it and talked about it and were aware of it, and I think that we then were hyper aware about not wanting to replicate any past hurts with the community. It’s the reason why we have so many consultants, it’s the reason why they had a seat at the table, because we recognized that we as a community, and this is separate and apart for ‘Paris Is Burning,’ we just knew that it was important for us to come in and aid in telling the story, as opposed to coming in and co-opting a narrative, and that’s a very fine line.

Twiggy Pucci Garçon (“Pose” choreographer; “Kiki” writer): I don’t think our intention when we made “Kiki” was to respond to anything — “Paris Is Burning” or not. Our intention from the beginning was to create a new project about the ballroom scene where an insider and outsider collaborated. It’s been sort of pushed into this lane where it is a response, but that wasn’t our original intention. I think now it definitely holds that space. When I think about “Kiki” and “Pose,” the things that are comparable are that, from the beginning, both film teams and production teams wanted authenticity. I want it to do that from the start. So to weave in folks who have been a part of ballroom in the creative process, from design all the way to execution.

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