The trailer for Elegance Bratton’s documentary “Pier Kids: The Life” opens with all of the voguing, duck walking and leyomi dropping we’ve come to expect from New York’s gay ballroom scene. Just before the hardwon ferocity of the ball competitor’s lulls viewers into a fall sense of ease, an image of a dancer landing a leyomi drop is spliced with an image of a homeless teenager sleeping on Christopher Street pier.
Two decades after the debut of Jennie Livingston’s iconic documentary “Paris Is Burning” but still in the afterglow of that film’s influence, “Pier Kids is about the in-between moments when you’re not at the ball, when you’re not even at the pier,” Bratton told BuzzFeed during a conversation about the project, Bratton’s Kickstarter campaign to raise funding to complete its production, and how his own experiences as a once homeless teen who frequented those very same piers has colored his lens.
His goal, ultimately, is for the film “to help poor and working class families of color understand the gay and transgender youth who are inside their homes so they stop kicking them out onto the streets.” Bratton’s mother kicked him out of their Rahway, NJ home when he came out of the closet. Vaguely familiar with New York, based on his family’s weekend trips to the city, the then-sixteen-year-old bought a train ticket. “I saw three black gay men get on the train. They were laughing. They were singing. They were dressed well. Just really, they were the life of that train car. And I sat there watching them like, “Whatever they’re doing that makes them that happy and that gay, I need to do it.” So, Bratton followed them and ended up at that Christopher Street pier. Years later, the writer and filmmaker is translating his experiences into a documentary that’s both in conversation with “Paris Is Burning” but also more direct in its attempt to make sense of the way class and race dynamics act upon the city’s LGBT community, especially its youth.
Both films capture one of New York’s underground scenes at a moment when the city itself is undergoing a major transformation. In the 1980s, just outside the ball scene’s tooth and nail glamor featured in Livingston’s take, the AIDS plague was ravaging the city. And the subjects of that film were some of the city’s most vulnerable. And now, as we see via Bratton’s gaze, the city’s queer youth - many of whom flocked to the city to escape unwelcoming families - are once again hardest hit by the city’s latest revision. This time, gentrification which though certainly less devastating than the AIDS plague is no less brutal in its impact. When asked how the neighborhood near the piers has changed in the last few years, Bratton notes “the police presence has been really intense. Of course, the physical changes, the gentrification, but also there’s so much hostility toward these young people.” At one point in the film, nearly 40 NYPD officers seize upon two teenagers who are play fighting in the street. “Just to watch the way wealth and power organizes itself against these youth, it’s just incredible,” he adds.
The hostility directed toward these young people is a key narrative in the film but also in Bratton’s struggle to raise funding for the film, another striking (if unfortunate) parallel between Bratton and Livingston. When asked about the obstacles he’s faced raising money necessary to complete “Pier Kids,” Bratton has to take a breathe. “I’ve been in conversations with producers, some of them very prominent, who have told me “Oh, they’re black, gay and poor? Oh, no. What’s the point? Why don’t you do a ballroom movie because at least that way, it doesn’t feel as uncomfortable to watch.” The fact that these comments are almost verbatim to what Jennie Livingston heard while meeting with producers for “Paris Is Burning” twenty years ago is more than a little disheartening. “I had gay white people saying, “I don’t think you should tell this story of that corner of the gay world. I don’t think it’s going to make us look good.” And I had straight people of color saying, “Don’t show that. That’s making us look bad.”
The budget for “Paris Is Burning” was $250,000 (though music rights clearances ended up costing just as much.) With four days to go, Bratton’s Kickstarter campaign is just shy of it’s $30,000 goal.