“Why you gagging though?”
Based around the underground ball culture of drag queens, this poignant documentary saw director Jennie Livingston spend most of her 80’s with unprecedented access to observe the extravagance surrounding the lifestyle.
The key focus of the film are the extravagant balls where queens come to make a statement and snatch trophies. Theres a number of categories for queens to compete in such as butch queen (ability to pass a heterosexual male), fem queen (ability to pass a heterosexual woman), or runways where participants vogue and spin and dip, showing their dance abilities. These balls were the night for those who attended, where legends mixed with new comers, and houses put out their best to uphold their reputation and earn bragging rights.
Houses are “families”, LGBT misfits who band together, usually under a “house mother”, a proven queen who guides and helps the younger members. It is customary to have to walk in a ball to prove oneself before being accepted into a house. This insight into the families show drag as not just a job or a hobby but a way of life for these people, an art form developed and passed down from generation to generation.
Livingston structures the film in a series of juxtapositions, contrasting whimsical fantasies with harsh realities, the glamour and opulence against poverty and violence, mirroring the change between being and dressing up. The queens flaunt their designer dresses and lavish accessories, though the items were often stolen. The young girls like Venus Xtravaganza and Octavia St. Laurent dreamed of stardom, wealth and families, while older queens Dorian Corey sat in her small apartment recounting a time gone by opined “I always had hopes of being a big star, but as you get older, you aim a little lower.”
The most fascinating aspect of the film are the subjects, outcast from society, mostly black and latino who have created their own space in the world with rules, customs and patois. Livingston gives a voice to a section of society who are entirely overlooked and ignored, enabling them to speak candidly about their lives and struggles, its their frank honesty that makes the film what it is. One queen states ”I remember my dad, he’d say ‘You have three strikes against you in this world. You’re black, you’re male and you’re gay. You’re gonna have a hard fuckin’ time. If you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna have to be stronger than you’ve ever imagined.’”
Among these queens Venus Xtravaganza is an enigmatic stand out whose personality captures the viewer entirely, stealing every scene she’s in. Softly spoken she lists her dreams for the future; to be rich, married, beautiful. Her story is ultimately a haunting one, while trying to attain these dreams, through prostitution, Venus is ultimately murdered. The shocking death of this young hopeful hits home as to how these lives full of glamour and theatricality are lived in the eye of a storm of hate and dissension by members of the wider community.
While many of the characters displayed their big personalities, throwing out several quotable one-liners and enticing chuckles from the audience, most were plagued by much larger personal struggles. Poverty, racism, homophobia, AIDS, violence and gender identity were all issues faced by the stars. One boy, only 15, discussed how his parents were both “gone” and how the community is his family, “this is my sister, cause she’s gay too”.
Although nowadays the subculture has mixed with our own popular culture with many singers crediting drag queens as their influences (Madonnas Vogue, Cher, Gaga to name a few), the use of such slang as “shade” and shows like Rupauls Drag Race on television, drag is a much more open subject. But in the 90’s when the documentary was released, it was not nearly as accepted. This documentary took a multi-dimensional look at the social, political and lifestyle of an exclusive and underground community, unedited and unashamed, which is a large reason why it’s still a must see today.
Our verdict is: O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E!!! You own EVERYTHING!!! Everything is yours! 10/10