A Conversation With Elegance Bratton

Pier Kids is a documentary film by Elegance Bratton. The film interrogates the meaning of community within at-risk LGBTQ+ youth of colour and also the larger gay community.

It’s not uncommon for those within the arts to immerse themselves into the environment they wish to film – but for Elegance, Pier Kids was an extremely personal labour of love. 

Nearly half a million queer kids of colour are homeless in America, and it’s within this brilliant documentary we are introduced to the infamous Christopher Street Pier in New York. In recent years we have been able to consume so much media about the brilliance of the LGBTQ+ community. But with this documentary, we are able to feel the authenticity of the real-life stories of Casper, DeSean and Krystal as they navigate the streets.

Within the first 30 seconds of the Zoom call, I am introduced to Lindsay Lohan (Elegance’s adorable dog) before she settles down for a nap. Elegance is calm, cool, and collected despite a clearly hectic schedule of working on an A24 produced feature film as well as writing some exciting upcoming projects. 

What inspired you to follow not only the 3 individuals spotlighted throughout the film but also others within their community?

EB: When I was 16, I was kicked out of my house for being gay. I didn’t have much money, and I hopped on the train to New York City. When I got there, I saw three Black gay men. They seemed really, really happy, being gay. I wondered where they’re going, where they feel so happy to be Black and gay. So, I just followed them and they led me to Christopher Street Pier. And instantly, you know, I felt at home. And this film was inspired by the idea that home was the place where one is most deeply understood.

When it came down to the decision of who exactly to follow predominantly over the five years of filming, this happened organically. Krystal approached me because I was talking to a lot of her chosen children. She was like ‘you’re weird. Why do you keep asking these stupid questions? Why are you talking to my kids? Who are you? Why are you here?’  And immediately, I felt connected to Krystal. When I started talking to her, I was like, alright, this is the type of person!

However, Krystal was extremely clear about what would make a project like this a successful process. She explained that if a movie was to be made about her life, you have to be a friend as well as an ally. Being a Black trans woman is extremely dangerous and when you are also homeless, everything is against you. 

Were there any difficulties you experienced whilst filming, whether it be physical boundaries, financial hardships or participants not wanting to be filmed?

All of the above! I filmed for five years from 2011 to 2016. So, everything happened. This included equipment being stolen. The team’s office was broken into by someone from the community which was a major setback throughout the filming process.  There was also the hunger for many to become the next big reality TV star. 

I started making Pier Kids, right when Instagram and Twitter were really starting to blow and make people into household names. Simultaneously shows like Love & Hip Hop and The Real Housewives of Atlanta were super popular. People used to call me the Love & Hip Hop guy! They would even throw drinks on each other or fight and scream Worldstar to try and get famous.

This is the most photographed and videotaped generation ever. So, there were many waiting for their chance to be discovered, so they can go and have long careers in the entertainment business. Many of the people that are on the screen have been on My House, my tv show that I had with Viceland as well as things like Legendary and Pose.

Perhaps the most difficult barrier to cross overall was the constant presence and threat of the police. When the police are harassing people. I felt like the camera was my intervention. This was pre-George Floyd, Eric Garner and Philando Castile. This was just before the viral social media moments where these names became hashtags.

I had many cops grab my lens and shove it down. I’d pick it back up because I’m allowed to film, that’s my right. Overall, that happened 100, probably 200 times.

You recorded for so many years, when did you know when to stop?

The lack of money will tell you when to stop! Elegance laughs, it was definitely an economic decision as well as a kind of like a spiritual one. Many of the individuals of Pier Kids had in fact moved on through various paths over the five years.

Krystal got married, and you know the whole movie was really about family and chosen family and when she married her husband I kind of felt like wow, this feels like whatever she was struggling within her early 20’s, some part of that has been resolved through the appearance of her husband.

If I carried on filming it would have become a different movie, and not necessarily about the Pier anymore. For others like DeSean, things did not end on such a happier note. I had grown accustomed to him disappearing from production due to various incarcerations and things he had to struggle with. By 2016 I hadn’t seen DeSean in nearly 2 years, he was no longer a kid and he had a lot of things to deal with.

What were some of your favourite moments whilst filming?

This question in particular leads Elegance into a spout of laughter which was a comfort after some rather heavy reflections about bringing Pier Kids to a close in 2016.

There was a moment when a guy flagged me over to record him performing fellatio on himself. I am rarely shocked, but I was absolutely shocked at that moment! 

Another incident involved me nearly getting into it with a group of lesbians who believed I was filming them without their consent. I was filming the building and the moonlight for some artsy in-between footage, and I guess they thought I was filming them as they were sniffing some drugs.

About twenty of them proceeded to approach me. They demanded I give them my camera and they also told me they were going to beat me up. I knew I had to make a decision, so I gave my camera to my assistant and told them to wait for me at the bar. I then squared up and was just like ‘okay, who’s gonna go first?’

The main one who challenged me has now transitioned and we’re like really good Facebook friends!

And finally, what’s next for you – are you working on anything exciting right now?

I have been in production working on my debut feature film called “The Inspection”. It stars Gabrielle Union and the incomparable Jeremy Pope.

The Inspection tells the story of a homeless gay Black kid who joins the Marine Corps to change his life but ends up forming an attraction to his drill instructor during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. So that’s an A24 film and we’ll be wrapped with that at the end of November.

Elegance is also in postproduction for a documentary about James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters.

They are the first regiment of black troops to fight in a World War on behalf of the United States. James Reese Europe is the first Black officer to fire and he is the first Black man to bring jazz music to France.

I’vr got other projects in the pipeline but can’t discuss them…yet. My main goal in life is to stay out of jail! I’m just out here you know, minding my business and working! Kind of the standard, you know.

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