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The Mind-Blowing 1990 Documentary You Must See Before Watching Pose

The library is open, children

Malcolm Venable

Pose, Ryan Murphy's new series for FX, is unprecedented. Depicting a squad of young black and Hispanic people who are gay, queer or transgender, Pose sets a record for the most trans performers on screen and working behind the scenes, ever. Nobody has ever seen anything like it on TV before. But some people will instantly recognize the pageantry, look and feel of the first episode -- especially those who've seen Paris Is Burning, the classic 1990 documentary that's something like Pose's spiritual mother.

Even those who haven't seen the film might be stunned to learn how this movie about the underground ballroom scene of the 80s influenced so much of pop culture today, from Madonna's iconic video "Vogue" to lingo like "throwing shade" heard everywhere from RuPaul's Drag Raceto the nightly news. Lena Waithe told TV Guide, "I always tell people Paris Is Burning taught me how to be gay -- to walk with integrity to have my head held high, to embrace it. I still watch it four times a year. It's important, it's school. It's church."

Ryan Murphy and FX Just Created the Largest Transgender Cast Ever

Pose, like Paris Is Burning, begins in 1987, when New York City had yuppies, hip-hop kids, crack users and sadly, AIDS patients, criss-crossing each others' paths, creating whole new forms of expression. Amid all this, young people like Pose's Angel (Indya Moore), Elektra (Dominique Jackson), Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) were forming tribes in low-income communities like Harlem and The Bronx. These adopted families, often made up of kids whose parents kicked them out for being gay or trans, were called "houses," and frequently took the name of fashion gods. Like the youth in Pose's House of Evangelista (named after Linda, the model), people in houses took them extremely seriously, with each house competing for status, prestige and prizes in competitions known as balls. Balls are certainly the most dazzling, outrageous and fun part of Pose, since it's at these dramatic pageants Angel learns how to strike a fierce pose, and where Elektra glides down the makeshift runway to show her dominance over all. But Pose also burrows into the realities that make the queens flock to the balls in the first place, revealing layers of resilience, heroism and triumph underneath their circumstances.

But Pose's glittering elevation of the chilling truths the community experiencs wouldn't be possible without Paris Is Burning. "I always loved Paris Is Burning," Ryan Murphy told reporters in January when FX debuted the show at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. At one time, he'd planned on turning the documentary into a series but reconsidered; Steven Canals' script for Pose sealed the decision to make this series instead. Nonetheless, Murphy, Canals and Pose writer/producer Janet Mock all consider Paris Is Burning a text that helped inform not only the show, but also their identities when they first saw it.

Mock saw trans girls and drag queens houses growing up in Hawaii, she told TV Guide, but had never seen footage of it anywhere else before. "I knew [the ballroom scene] in the sense of how black and brown trans and queer folk gathered in community and performance and gathered to take care of one another in a world that doesn't take care of them," she said, "but I don't think I saw footage of it until I saw Paris Is Burning. So there's no way to separate my exposure to this space beyond that." Murphy said he considered the people in the film as rock stars -- part of the reason keen-eyed viewers will recognize a few of its stars in Pose including ballroom/voguing legend Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza and Freddie Pendavis, who was an impressionable, hilarious teenager in the movie, among others. Most everyone, however, died -- more than a few from AIDS-related complications.

Dominique Jackson as Elektra, Pose

Dominique Jackson as Elektra, Pose


Still, the personalities presented to the world in Paris Is Burning, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in the year of its release, are now considered gay icons. There's Willi Ninja, whose angular, mathematical voguing made him a sought-after choreographer around the world (and muse to Madonna, who put him in the "Vogue" video); Dorian Corey, a regal, old-school queen with the poise of Marlene Dietrich; Pepper LaBeija, mother of the House of LaBeija who purrs when he speaks and can't get enough of how amazing he is; and Venus Xtravaganza, a gorgeous Latinx trans woman and sex worker who dreams of being a rich white woman whisked away into a fabulous suburban life with a rich white man. "I don't think there was more of an image that had more of an impact on me than seeing Venus Xtravaganza sitting on that pier smoking a cigarette," Mock told TV Guide. "You can't write and make up characters like that. They're all so real about the little humble goals that they wanted and I think that is what the lasting impact of that film is."

Ryan Jamaal Swain as Damon, Pose

Ryan Jamaal Swain as Damon, Pose


For all its hilarity and histrionic extravagance, Paris Is Burning is most powerful in the ways it presents insights about race, gender identity, poverty, sexuality and class through its subjects. The very reason houses existed was because the "children" in them, like Pose's Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), had nowhere else to go after their parents threw them out for being gay; many got by through sex work. Paris Is Burning shows how being gay or trans became a fourth strike -- in addition to being born black/Latinx, male and poor -- which shunted them to the margins of society, unable have the nice things the white people on Park Avenue and in the magazines had. Denied access to employment, they depended on their own grit and one another to survive. The ball scene then, became much more than a pastime or hobby, but a fully formed society unto itself in which they could finally be their whole selves without shame or limitation. "Black people have a hard time getting anywhere and those that do are usually straight," Corey says in one of Paris Is Burning's stunning confessionals. "In a ballroom you can be anything you want. You're showing the straight world that I can be an executive if I had the opportunity because can look like one, and that is like a fulfillment."

Paris Is Burning has been criticized for being exploitative, and only a few people in it lived long enough to see a black president, legalized same-sex marriage or for that matter, RuPaul's Drag Race win four Emmys. As Murphy did with The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Feud: Bette and Joan and The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story Pose burrows deep into a moment from the well of zeitgeists past to pull up characters whose struggle illuminates the suffering societal discrimination and prejudice cause. Pose gives its characters the sense of triumph the kids in Paris Is Burning never got to see. "When I discovered the balls in my early 20s," said creator Steven Canals, "I was dismayed as an Afro-Latino queer man that I didn't know this existed." Pose goes beyond merely paying the people from that scene homage to truly honor them by putting a new generation (as well as Paris Is Burning's living veterans) front and center -- and on the payroll. The resonance isn't lost on the many black and Latinx queer and trans people Murphy hired to work on the show -- people who now have actual resume experience they can use to get more of the work the people in Paris Is Burning never imagined and characters in Pose dream of. "Their contributions deserve to be recognized," he said.

Young queer people outside big cities like New York would've been lucky to discover Paris Is Burning on VHS 28 years ago -- fortunate to know other people like them existed, that they weren't alone. Pose carries its spirit and purpose forward, so now everybody can see how valuable their lives are. That, as they say in Paris Is Burning, is true Executive Realness, and makes Pose legendary.

Pose premieres Sunday, June 3 at 9/8c.