Paris is Burning is not only a fantastic gay documentary, it's a fantastic documentary, period. It's about being an outsider and the desire for acceptance, fortune and fame. The mostly black, mostly poor, homosexual men profiled find acceptance through “balls” (highly competitive and categorized dress-up and dance competitions), the only place where, as one man says “It's okay to be gay,” in the unwelcoming world of white America in the 1980s.
Viewers are welcomed into the subculture with open arms by the most charming and candid characters. Many of these people had lost their way then found themselves again in this complex world–an absorbing subculture focused on “Realness“: the ability to look as closely as possible as your straight counter part; “Houses“: gay groups headed by a “mother” that compete and, as one man says in the film, are basically “gay street gangs” that fight not through violence but dancing; “Voguing“: which at the time was not a household word and idea but a form of competitive dancing; and “Reading and Shade”: the art forms of spoken and physical insult.
There are drag queens and trans-genders, prostitutes and tons of sass, but there's also real gravity and sadness; the tragic end of Viva Extravaganza will make you want to cry. Still, the world is changing, and it was changing even as the film was being shot. Some of the men featured did end up enjoying success as the world at large grew more accepting of homosexuality–or, at the very least, more aware.