In his 2019 feature-length documentary Pier Kids, Elegance Bratton follows three homeless queer and trans youth of colour over a period of three years, and the film ends with a celebration. In the final scene, dancing crowds clog the traffic on Christopher Street in Manhattan’s West Village during Pride. A straight white couple is huddled in an SUV as the ebullient crowd bangs on car hoods, chanting “twerk” even as police shove dancers into barricades. Off camera comes the director’s voice, “They’re still here, white people!”
A tribute to gay family and a meditation on the meaning of home, Pier Kids testifies to the fact that homeless queer youth of colour are still here, despite relentless gentrification and police brutality. While celebrating the community’s persistence, the line “they’re still here” also urges the audience to acknowledge that, despite the gains of the mainstream gay rights movement, millions of homeless queer and trans youth of colour still live precariously.
“What does it mean that the people who look the most like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are still living like Marsha and Sylvia 50 years after Stonewall?” Bratton asks, referencing two trans women of colour credited with leading the revolt against police harassment at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, and who subsequently created an organization to house homeless queer youth. “You’ve not had a movement without making sure that these kids are not just able to get married, but also able to get houses, education and health care.”
Reviewers often compare Bratton’s film to Jennie Livingston’s 1990 Paris is Burning. “Livingston is an icon to me,” Bratton says, adding he can recite all the dialogue from her film. “Her film documents both the culture of the ballroom scene and the curious power dynamic of the extraction of Black culture by white media.” While Pier Kids begins with an early-morning voguing session, its focus is on the day-to-day survival concerns of his subjects and the forces that make survival next to impossible.
After being kicked out of his Jersey City home at 16 because of his sexuality, Bratton spent 10 years of his life as a pier kid. He followed a group of Black men he saw “being fabulous” on the train, and they led him to Christopher Street. He joined the Marines in his mid-20s and served as a cameraperson and documentarian. He then attended Columbia University and received an MFA from the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
Bratton cautions against reading a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps lesson from his success. “My choice was either to die on the streets or join the military and get blown up on the side of the road,” he says. “The cure is a prescription for PTSD.” Instead of being inspired by his trajectory, he wants audiences to consider the structural changes needed to make it possible for homeless youth to thrive.
After graduating from Tisch, Bratton directed several critically acclaimed short films, including Walk For Me, which focuses on the role of transgender mothers in ball culture, and shot a 10-episode documentary series on ball culture for Viceland. His work provided early career opportunities for actors like Dominique Jackson, who now plays Elektra on Pose.
Meanwhile, Bratton was culling through the five years’ worth of footage that would eventually become Pier Kids. He’d started filming while a freshman at Columbia, heading to the piers while the rest of his classmates went home for vacation. At the time, he was studying radical ethnographers like Zora Neale Hurston who immersed herself in the culture of her subjects. “It was important to create an aesthetic of being in the shoes of a homeless Black queer kid,” he says. “I wanted to make it real for the viewer that, for Black gay men, sex and sexuality is a political experience.”
It took him three years to edit the film, a process that was sometimes demoralizing. “The response was, ‘This is great, but it needs more hope,’” he recalls. This sentiment echoed something he had heard in graduate school, when a professor suggested he add aspects to his films to assure white audiences that they aren’t racist. “I was grateful for her comments,” he says. “Other white people wouldn’t tell me that directly.” Instead of making him change his work, the feedback convinced him he was on the right track. “Art is supposed to move and provoke you, not satiate you,” he says. “If you want to be satiated, let me get you a box of cookies.”
Pier Kids premiered in 2019 at Outfest in L.A. and has been making the festival rounds in search of a distributor. “I think gatekeepers aren’t used to seeing empowered subjects who don’t care if the viewer likes them,” Bratton says. “The trend in Black cinema has been to turn our rage into comedy or fierce, fab drag. And I love that. But that can’t be the only thing.”
Bratton would like the conversation about diversity to go beyond counting the number of films by or featuring people of colour and instead ask what kinds of experiences are being represented. “Often what audiences want to see is that people who suffer are special only if they are able to find transcendent joy in dire circumstances,” he says. Instead he wants to use the medium of film to make real systematic change.
“No matter how many gay shows you have on TV, we aren’t moving forward unless that representation turns into material improvement in the quality of life of those of us who are experiencing the worst forms of intersecting oppression.”
While his project, The Inspection, is a narrative feature, it still hones in on overlapping oppressions; Bratton plans to start shooting in September. The film takes place at boot camp where a queer Black recruit must keep his crush on his training officer a secret. Like all of Bratton’s films, The Inspection is being produced by his husband and collaborator Chester Algernal Gordon. A self-declared “creative dyslexic,” Bratton doesn’t see a big difference between his documentaries and his narrative films. “When I’m on set with actors, we’re just getting to a place where it feels real,” he says. “There is a magic present that is much deeper than what anybody set out to do.”
The Inspection is an “action romance with comedic elements,” Bratton says, and will be the first feature about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a U.S. military policy that effectively barred openly queer military personnel while banning discrimination against closeted gay men and women. “I think it’s a travesty there hasn’t been a major film about the legacy of that institution,” he says. The film also centres a strong mother figure, inspired by his own mother who died in February 2020. “We never got a chance to reconcile and fix things between us,” he says.
While the mainstream media gobbles up stories of fabulous gays and exceptional people of colour beating the odds, Bratton remains committed to representing the stories of people like the protagonist in The Inspection or the subjects of Pier Kids. “As we go forward into a new decade I hope that people in the film industry are interested in challenging themselves, actually making work that could be inspirational in dismantling systems of oppression,” he says. “There’s been a lot of really positive work to diversify the screen. Now that work has to take another step forward into work that diversifies the consciousness of this society.”