Tarell Alvin McCraney celebrates ‘Paris is Burning’

Queer icons

Queer Icons is BBC Radio 4’s celebration of LGBTQ culture. Guests on the station’s daily arts and culture programme Front Row choose queer artworks which are special to them.

Tarell Alvin McCraney won an Oscar this year for co-writing the film Moonlight. He is chair of playwriting at Yale School of Drama. Tarell’s plays include Wig Out! which he performed at the National Theatre in London in July.

My choice is ‘Paris is Burning’, which is a documentary highlighting the house and drag culture in New York City in the 1980s. And for a young person like myself who was involved in the ball scene at a pretty young age — I began seeing my first drag shows at 16 and then going to drag ball houses around 17, 18 — ‘Paris is Burning’ showed us characters and a kind of love that we had not yet seen before.

Black men loving each other is a revolutionary act and in ‘Paris is Burning’ we saw that. We saw a revolutionary act of families coming together, being made up of people who had no family or had been stripped from families, and I just found that fascinating and beautiful and encouraging.

“The House of LaBeija is the legendary house above all of them. I have the most members, I’m the most popular. New York City is wrapped up in being LaBeija. So it speaks for itself. And I am the fiercest mother out of all of them.”

Describing a drag ball. At one level it is a pageant, a competition where people come to walk in categories in order to be judged by legendary members of the community.

Based on each category and your ability to win it, your accessibility to realness or to fashion or to a look or to be able to vogue in a very classic old way or new way, whatever the category is asking for, you win prizes.

This has been popularised by things like ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ and reality TV has stolen so much of how these competitions work. I mean you can hear people constantly quoting Pepper LaBeija even today and in that way it was groundbreaking. So, for instance, the words ‘shade’, when someone’s throwing shade or ‘give me the tee’, give me the information.’ And you had a lot of dancers and artists amongst that community. Vogue came out of it as a way of sort of walking and being fashionable in movement, in dance.

That then began to happen at clubs, so ball scenes would spill over into everyday clubs. And then Madonna got hold of it and she called vogue out onto the floor and then people thought that she founded it.

As a kid who was 17, 18, being able to watch ‘Paris is Burning’ in my classroom video deck, sweating profusely because I’m thinking I don’t know what I’m watching and I got this from the library and I’m hoping to God that it has a representation of me in it and then being sort of blown away by its majesty, I think it just allowed me to understand that though my drag scene in Miami was certainly alive, that there were other people across the world who were engaged and trying their best to find a platform with which to speak. And so in that way it forever changed my life.

— Tarell Alvin McCraney

Listen to all of Front Row’s Queer Icons on the BBC Radio 4 web site. Sign up for Front Row’s daily podcast to get arts and culture delivered to your mobile. And look for ‘Paris is Burning’ on streaming movie services.

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