Director Elegance Bratton brings a unique vision to his first feature length film, Pier Kids. Having once been homeless and spending much of his time on NYC’s Christopher Street pier himself, his experience informs every moment of this bracing documentary about black homeless LGBTQ youths trying to find their way in America’s biggest city.
In our conversation, Elegance and the film’s producer, Chester Algernal Gordon, discuss with me not only the challenge of making Pier Kids on a shoestring budget, but also explain the world of these young people with an authority that only those who have lived it can.
Awards Daily: While it’s not all that uncommon to see films on homeless youth or the struggles of young LGBTQ people, we seldom get to focus on people of color under those two umbrellas. What drove you to make this film?
Elegance Bratton: Pier Kids comes out of a desire to express my experience. I spent ten years of my life homeless. I’m Black, and I’m gay. My homelessness was a result of my sexuality. I didn’t even get a chance to fully come out. I was given the ultimatum, and it was time to go. When I got into the world, I discovered the gay rights movement. The whole era was wrapped up in trying to get mainstream Americans to understand who queer Americans are, primarily driven by the HIV/AIDS crisis. None of that activity had reached my home. There was no language in the house for us to have that conversation. The work had not been laid out to feature people of color—working class Black people.
After many years of struggle and exploration, I found myself at the end of my first semester at Columbia University, and watching the kids go back home was really impactful to me. I had no knowledge prior to being on campus that home was such a big deal for college freshman, especially at school like Columbia. I kept asking myself, “What is home? Where is home?” One day I looked up and I was on Christopher Street—the same place that I ended up the day I was kicked out. I looked around and I saw so many people who look like me, and I realized that home is the place where one is most deeply understood. Whenever I’m on Christopher Street in the West Village, I feel I don’t have to say anything to anyone who looks like me. I wanted to make something that was both a challenge to the gay rights movement that I felt abandoned poor and working class people of color, but also to commemorate the profound joy that I have knowing that I really do have a family and a home.
AD: The film takes place over roughly a three-year period. Can you talk about the difficulty of keeping the project going in terms of financing and keeping up with your subjects?
EB: It was a profound struggle. It was actually five years. We began in 2011 and concluded production in the summer of 2016. There was a lot of difficulty maintaining connections to folks. There’s so many people in this movie who passed on. There are many people in this movie that just disappeared. One day you see them, the next day they are gone.
From a financing perspective, I was fortunate that we did a Kickstarter campaign and raised about $40,000. That allowed us to be able to film the movie, but of course that wasn’t enough to edit it. I was under the impression that I would raise this money on Kickstarter and people would feel this person is doing it all by themselves (in my living room and in my dorm room), and I thought that the industry would come to the rescue and help me do the rest. That was not the case. People were very much put off by the fact that the film doesn’t feature a class transformation—documentaries with poor Black people in them are almost always, at least in some way, a redemption story for the audience. This person chose a different path and all of a sudden, they’re living a different life and everything’s better, and that’s why they’re worthy of emphasis: because they can overcome great struggle. I was ignorant to the idea that movies had to have happy endings. I also totally underestimated how little Black queer life mattered in the industry at that time. This is pre-Pose and pre-My House.
I walk into these offices and the people who are sitting at the desk are so different from the people on the pier. They were just like, if they’re not voguing, if they’re not being fierce, or going to an Ivy League school like you, then people will be depressed by this and they won’t want to see it, so I can’t help you. Fortunately, we sold My House to Viceland—that was my my first TV show. So, I had some money, and I paid for the editing. And then in the middle of the editing we managed to secure support from the Tribeca Film Institute and that’s how we raised our finishing funds. It was really challenging on a lot of different levels: the personal, the financial, and the systemic. But I’m proud of us that we all made it through and I’m grateful to those who supported us on Kickstarter.
AD: To think that it took you eight years to film and edit the film, and now you are trying to release it during a pandemic. You must be thinking, what’s next?
EB: [Laughs] For me, my whole life has been COVID-19. COVID-19 and Black Lives Matters has all of a sudden created an America where I can go to the average white middle class—if there’s even a middle class anymore—American and they’re upset, sad, and angry about the state of the world and fearful of their place in it too. Now they understand what that is. This is the moment we’re in with Corona. I’ve always lived with some aspect of fear that the system can’t protect me—from things seen and unseen. The film is not concerned with the logical order of events. It’s more concerned with the experience and dealing with all of this. I think this pandemic is, in a weird way, good for the film because it allows for a cathartic experience of these emotions that we’re all going through every day. It’s happening so fast, we lack the language to describe it. I think this film is helping people to better understand the new space they inhabit.
AD: You were speaking about how the film lacks a happy ending. In a way, it doesn’t really have an ending, which I found both brave and purposeful. Because these lives go on, and there’s no bow to tie up a life.
EB: This is a film about agency. This is a film that revels in the choices that people make. Because, to a certain extent in our society, for many people in American culture and in the western world right now, the only things they can really choose are what they’re eating and what they’re looking at. Politically speaking, who knows what’s going to happen? We are literally throwing out mailboxes. The last time, Trump paid Russia to help win the election. So, even in terms of our vote, there’s a lot that isn’t certain. Yet, we still make choices, and I think that going forward we’re really going to help reshape the imagination of the world so that it can sustain justice for every person.
I think Pier Kids helps in that it places you in the shoes, in the skin, of a queer, Black, homeless person and it does not ask you for sympathy. It asks you to revel in the power of the idea that there are still choices to be made. That’s an important thing. People need to understand that they can make choices. As seemingly endless and impossible as all of this depression may seem, you really are making choices every day, and somewhere in that power of choice is the power to change. Every day that we survive, we have an opportunity to change, and that’s celebrated in this film. It’s not looked at as a remorseful condition, it’s seen as the essential power of being a human being.
AD: The film follows three pier kids in particular: Krystal, Desean, and Casper. Casper doesn’t survive the film, but I was wondering if you still have connections with Krystal and Desean?
Chester Algernal Gordon: We talk to Krystal often. We’ve done Q&A’s during the pandemic with her for film festivals. She’s currently married and living in Pennsylvania with her husband and starting a couple nonprofits. Desean is currently incarcerated. Elegance learned how to look up people in the prison industrial complex through Krystal. He was looking for Desean and Krystal asked have you ever looked him up online through the prisons. They did, and he was. We checked again recently and he still is currently incarcerated. Casper passed away, which is shown in the film. He got hit by two hit and run drivers on the Eastern Parkway.
AD: The two most moving scenes in the film for me were when Krystal went back home and was getting her hair done by her aunt, and then later with both her aunt and her mom. It’s not that they don’t love her, but their refusal to recognize her as a self-identified woman while Krystal is right next to them is incredibly painful to watch.
CAG: Getting you hair done by your relatives in the African-American community is a really important ritual—especially for women. That’s really intimate. It forms bonds and relationships. At first, her aunt is showing her love by doing her hair, then she asks Krystal if she can call her “my nephew.” That contrast is really interesting.
EB: This is what I was saying earlier, this is why this movie exists. The contemporary gay rights movement makes it seem as though somehow people are failing if you don’t come out, and then if you do come out, your family fails if they don’t accept you carte blanche. That story is told over and over again in coming out narratives. I think that story is particularly steeped in privilege and is not necessarily accurate in how queer people actually come out. In reality, you come out every day. Every day, you are negotiating acceptance in many interactions. As a person of color, the color of your skin makes that process intractable. If you’re interacting in the world outside of your household, you’re interacting with racism. There is no coming out. Everyone can tell what you are.
When you’re queer, there’s a thing that’s seen in the media that’s more flamboyant, and then there’s the thing that’s not seen very often, which is this gray area, where if you don’t tell someone you are (queer), you don’t necessarily have to deal with consequences—like for Krystal and her family. People who go through this need to see themselves onscreen. People need to know that this is a process to work out. The tragedy of that scene is that Krystal returned to being homeless when she has people who love her. How can we have this conversation without these kids being homeless?
CAG: It wasn’t easy shooting either scene because of the tension, but we got through it. We have so much respect for Krystal and the relationship she has with her family, and letting us into a part of her life.
EB: It was terribly triggering for me, this moment in the film with Krystal and her mother. I don’t know if, prior to that moment, I knew what the movie was for. Once this scene began, I realized I had never gotten the chance to have this conversation with my family. I was sitting there [during the scene] and half of the time I’m thinking in my head what I would say, and then not being able to say it. Having to just listen was triggering and therapeutic—it was necessary. It has helped me to become better and live in my purpose as an artist.
CAG: That moment is like a boiling point when the water runs over the pot. Because her family hadn’t seen her as a woman, having his transition. For them it was a shocking because when she left she was a boy and when she came back she was a girl. I feel like before she had to deal with homophobia from her family, and that homophobia has turned into transphobia.
AD: In full disclosure, I’m a white, straight, middle-class guy from the Midwest. So bear with me if this is a dumb white guy question. What makes this process of coming out so different for people of color?
EB: I hope when this gets printed, you leave your question in its form: “a dumb white guy question.” I think that’s really charming. Thank you for being so self-effacing. That’s really funny. [Laughs] How does it differ? We’ll start with double consciousness for people who are of color. I am Black. There is a deep and meaningful history around how being Black has been criminalized and how that criminalization can manifest in the premature and unnecessary death of Black people, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor being the most recent. Many Black trans women have been killed this year: more than 300. The truth of the matter is that because you’re Black you have to see things through two sets of eyes and with two minds. I’m going to have to see how white people perceive my authentic self in real time. For instance, in Pier Kids, there’s a moment when a cop shows up, and I’m the cinematographer on this film. As a Black person, whenever a cop shows up in any room I’m in, I immediately shift my gaze to them. Because I don’t know that the cop is not going to hurt me. And if they are going to try to hurt me, I need to have some sort of way to try to get out of it. When you watch the film, you see that happen. That’s double consciousness. I’m in this space making the movie and in one second none of that matters because I’m Black and that’s a cop. Now, that’s just one form of difference from the norm. Because I’m Black and the norm is white, I have to see myself from the white side.
Now, throw in gay, or trans, or bi. I’m seeing things from a different baseline not only because of the color of my skin, but now I have to make a choice to reveal who I am, or hide who I am. Imagine if you’re trans, maybe when you were 15, 16 years old, you were on the football team or the basketball team. Then you decide you’re going to live your truth. You’re 18 and you start taking hormones, and people can walk by you in the street and tell that you are gender variant. You feel like one thing to them, but look like another, and as soon as they see that, there’s a threat. What I’m trying to explain is the concept of intersectionality. Each human being is a multi-faceted composite of their own genetic history and their own cultural experiences. As that central truth of who you’re born as mixes with the amorphous truth of how you socialize, you now experience reality through multiple forms of consciousness—multiple levels of awareness directed to one’s identity. How is that different from being white? White people don’t have to do that. [Laughs] It’s always been legal to be a white straight male in America. The space of limitless possibility is that of the white straight male in America. This individual, for the last 300 years, has been able to do whatever he wants. Everyone else, in order to understand why they can’t do what they want to do, has to view life through the prism of the various forms of identity that are not white, straight, and male.
AD: There’s no easy way to segue into another question after such an incredible answer, but can you talk about where the film is sitting now with distribution and when and where people can see it?
CAG: We are still looking for distribution for the film. We see it on a streaming platform. We really want a lot of people to see this, and for people’s lives to change, and for people to stop putting their children out. We have a number of showings at festivals coming up. We are playing Blackstar on August 24th, Mammoth Lakes on September 20th, Frameline on September 21st, Take One Action in London on September 23rd, and several others coming up.