Filmmaker Elegance Bratton lobs no softballs in his documentary feature debut Pier Kids, which premiered in Los Angeles as part of Outfest 2019. The first onscreen title: “In the wake of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the world cheered the advancement of white queers and ignored the fates of queer people of color.” A harsh truth frequently ignored — even oppressed minorities have strata of privilege, and any revolutionary strides more often benefit those of a certain economic, social or genetic bent. Bratton aims to shine a light on a community within the community, specifically the 40 percent of queer youth who are both homeless and people of color.
Bratton, himself gay and African-American, knows this life first-hand. He was kicked out of his home after coming out, then lived on the streets for several years before joining the Marine Corps. Eventually, with a mentor’s encouragement, he turned to photography and filmmaking. It’s evident that he wants to get this story, which focuses on the displaced LGBTQ denizens who gather around Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers, just right. Much of the photography, shot on hand-held, low-res video, has an embedded-in-the-action feel. No room here for gloss, just the grim quotidian, out of which poetry will occasionally arise.
The levee breaks.
Pier Kids was filmed over five years, and much of it takes place in 2011 and 2012, until the final section, which jumps ahead to the summer of 2016. There’s a sense of accumulated time and experience. It’s easy to imagine a version of this documentary slapped together as righteous response to the uber-discriminatory Trump era. Bratton’s unhurried approach, by contrast, reminds us that systemic problems are not unique to one era, not dependent on who sits in the seats of power. If you think you have it good, best to remember that plenty of others do not.
The stakes are best exemplified by a soft-spoken African-American youth (one of Bratton’s many subjects, a number of whom go unidentified onscreen) who discusses the muddy morality of theft while displaying food and bathroom products he shoplifted from a supermarket. He describes his actions in a humorous arc from “confiscated” to “boosted” to “stole.” Then he lays out his method, which involves the illusion of lawful shopping and the use of a fake gift card. It’s a very sensible means of, in his word, “survival,” though the real gut-punch comes at the end of the scene when he casually discusses the possibility of infecting himself with HIV in order to get a guaranteed ticket off the streets. “Survival,” for many of Bratton’s subjects, doesn’t only mean transgressing the law, but life itself.
Pier Kids is comprised of many such off-handed, hard-hitting moments, scenes that constantly frustrate the easy readings of both the ignorant and the sanctimonious. An affable Wall Street type hanging out with the homeless youths goes off on the degree to which race was a factor in the election of then-President Barack Obama, though his reactionary rhetoric isn’t presented as infallible evidence of inhumanity. The film instead contemplates the contradiction of an otherwise genial person saying something unthinkingly cruel and callous. It’s telling that Bratton just allows the moment to hang there, the frictions discomfiting and unresolved.
Similar tensions arise in scenes involving a trans woman named Krystal LaBeija, the closest Pier Kids has to a protagonist. Bratton accompanies her to Kansas City to visit her aunt and mother, both of whom use misgendering language, since neither can conceive of the boy they knew as the girl she’s always been. Again, it would be so easy to paint the elder women as villains to be triumphed over or righteously stamped out. Yet Bratton gives equal voice to both their perspective (couched, not insincerely, in terms of God and love) and to Krystal’s (exasperated, but trying ever-and-always to educate, to extend understanding and affection), ultimately emphasizing a gap that, despite the best intentions, might never be bridged.
The subjects of Pier Kids live in a perpetual state of precariousness. In calling attention to their struggles, Bratton honors their endurance and celebrates their existence.
Featuring: Krystal Dixon, DeSean Irby, Krystal LaBeija, Jusheem Thorne
Director-writer: Elegance Bratton
Executive producers: Elegance Bratton, Sabaah Folayan, Terence Nance
Producer: Chester Algernal Gordon
Co-producer: Nathan Proctor
Music: James Newberry
Editing: Thuto Durkac Somo, Bernhard Fasenfest
Venue: Outfest Los Angeles