One of the reasons it was so easy to become an immediate fan of the competition reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race (admittedly as a late-comer) is that instantly felt familiar to me through the NYC ball culture documentary Paris is Burning. The runway categories, library reads, and aggressive voguing gyrations of the show felt like they were directly lifted from Paris is Burning’s most iconic moments – just smartly adapted to a modern reality competition show format. It turns out that was an incomplete picture of where Drag Race was pulling its inspiration from, as I recently discovered while watching the new digital restoration of the late-60s drag pageant documentary The Queen. Predating both Paris is Burning and, incredibly, the Stonewall riots, The Queen is a behind-the-scenes tour of a drag competition in 1960s New York City. It’s such an early glimpse of the scene that it was Rated X by the MPAA largely for its cohabitation of black and white contestants backstage before racial segregation was officially outlawed by The Supreme Court. It’s an invaluable artifact from a pageant drag tradition that hasn’t changed a lick over the last half-century even though the world has drastically changed around it. The trail back from Drag Race to Paris is Burning directly leads even further back here – a clear lineage of the exact kind of D.I.Y. spectacle & glamour in gender performance entertainment you can still see at your local drag bar this very weekend.
Of course, because it’s such an early snapshot of the pageant drag scene, the film is narrated with a kind of Drag 101 overview (not to mention outdated in its discussions of transgender identity politics). Mostly, though, it’s structured like a lost early season of Drag Race. At first, it feels as if there are way too many contestants for any one individual personality to shine through, but the major players and the obvious winner emerge over time in a slow-moving meltdown of hurt feelings, petty jealousies, and pure D.I.Y. glamour. Celebrity guests like Andy Warhol briefly appear to boost ratings. Life or Death wig emergencies heighten the backstage drama. Crystal LaBejia (whose infamous drag house would later feature prominently in Paris is Burning) reads a younger queen to filth for not having paid her dues. There’s even a controversy where the RuPaul-like figurehead of the pageant, Sabrina, is accused of rigging the results to crown her preferred queen in a sham of a competition. You could almost map out a Drag Race season’s worth of ficitional Reddit message board discussions of the competition and pass it off as critique of a recent era of the show. The only thing that’s noticeably out of date on the surface (as opposed to lurking in its era’s politics) is the types of drag represented onstage are much more limited in their variety – encompassed entirely by the Passing, glamorous concerns of the old pageant drag traditions that defined the artform for me growing up in the South. The exponential popularity of Paris is Burning & Drag Race has expanded the definition of what drag is (and the possibilities of what it can be) in recent years, but the competition format here indicates that the structure of its presentation has largely remained the same for a long time now.
The similarities between these three drag culture touchstones wouldn’t be so remarkable if there were more documents of the artform over time, so a lot of The Queen’s value as an artifact is how rare its backstage 1960s access truly is. Still, the film has its own artistic merits outside its place in a drag competition lineage, even if it’s more functional & matter-of-fact than it is avant-garde. Even in its new restoration it has the overly rich color & wildly out-of-focus drunkenness of an old Polaroid preserved in the back of a forgotten photo album, seeing the light of day for the first time in decades. Because the backstage spaces it crams into to document the drag show’s contestants are so cramped, it’s often shot from drastically low angles, incredibly close to its subjects’ faces. The audience often takes on the POV of a lost toddler who stumbled behind the scenes of a Vegas floor show. There’s plenty of beauty & glamor, but also cacophonous chatter & an overwhelming funhouse mirror effect in its closeups of half-dressed performers. You won’t find that kind of guerilla filmmaking excitement in the crisp, digital gaudiness of Drag Race, which has honed this drag competition format down to a machine-like precision. That tangible presence of humanity behind the camera overrides the sense that Sabrina is attempting to over-produce the narrative of her supposedly non-rigged competition à la RuPaul, and The Queen gradually takes on its own look & tone separate from its drag competition descendants to follow as a result. It’s both unique & traditionalist, warmly familiar & shockingly fresh – a vibrant relic from a drag lineage that’s proving to be eternal.