At the 2018 MTV Movie & TV Awards on June 18th, actress and Emmy Award-winning writer Lena Waithe was honored with the Trailblazer Award. It was a public acknowledgment of all the incredible things Waithe has achieved so far, from creating her show The Chi to being featured on the cover of Vanity Fair back in March. And during her acceptance speech, Waithe took the opportunity to spotlight the iconic documentary Paris Is Burning.
Never heard of it? That’s okay — we’ve got you covered.
As The Guardian notes, the 1990 documentary directed by Jennie Livingston chronicles the lives of black and Latino gay men, drag queens, and trans women living in New York City in the ’80s. Paris Is Burning not only focuses on the voguing and runway competitions of the ballroom subculture, but it also includes interviews about issues like race, class, and the AIDS crisis. Many of the subculture’s biggest icons, like drag queens Pepper LaBeija and Venus Xtravaganza, were featured in the film.
In her speech, Waithe noted that we owe much of our modern-day slang to the queer people of color depicted in the documentary. As she noted, terms like “throwing shade” and “serving face” originated in the world of drag.
The film’s influence also lives on in RuPaul’s Drag Race, which uses many of the terms popularized by the New York drag scene. And in 2016, Paris Is Burning was preserved for future generations in the National Film Registry, meaning its legacy will live on for years to come.
However, the documentary is not without controversy. As the New York Times reported in 1993, while aspects of the subculture depicted in the film were appropriated by the mainstream, many of the film’s stars have since died — of murder, complications from AIDS, and other health problems. Many of them remained impoverished at the time of their death, and Livingston has faced criticism for exploiting the people whose lives she depicted.
Although the documentary isn’t perfect, Waithe’s point that we owe so much to drag culture is heard — loud and clear.