Elegance Bratton on Trans Youth-Focused Doc 'Pier Kids': "I Hope That People Are Listening"

Elegance Bratton - Getty - 2020
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Bratton, along with producer Chester Algernal, participated in Outfest's United in Pride digital film festival to discuss their latest project.

Filmmaker Elegance Bratton and producer Chester Algernal came together on Thursday for a thought-provoking discussion with Dear White People's Effie Brown as part of Outfest's United in Pride digital film festival.

During their portion of the live-stream event — taking place in partnership with Film Independent’s Project Involve and Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter's second annual Pride Summit — the group discussed Bratton's recent documentary Pier Kidswhich focuses on queer and trans youth living at New York City's Christopher Street Pier. Bratton along with his producer Algernal discussed with Brown how the film speaks to current issues around systemic racism, police violence toward the Black community, and the solutions necessary to address those issues.

Bratton noted that in making this film, he often thought of the history of the Stonewall Riots and how Sylvia Riviera and Marsha P. Johnson were two trans women of color that started the historic 1969 riot that "changed the world for gay people." 

Bratton noted that while filming queer and trans participants, he often wondered "What happens if they riot? What happens if all of these kids who are walking by... were to pick up a stone? A part of me was filming with the reasonable expectation that could happen at any moment, and to some degree, the desire for it to happen."

When asked about filming participants and the challenges that came with gaining their trust to be filmed, Bratton shared how one trans woman, Krystal Dixon, expressed that she would not be filmed unless Bratton and the camera were her friend. "If I get caught by a cop, you are on my side," Bratton said Dixon told him. "If I'm hungry, you make sure I eat. You have to be my friend and then I'll let you film my life."

An impactful moment in the documentary is when Dixon returns home to see her mother and other family members. Bratton touched on the complexities of Black religious families accepting transgender men and women, saying "For Krystal's family, and a lot of Black families, the consequences of acting outside the procreation Christian —you know, make babies, make life, be closer to God thing — is a white supremacist environment because you don't have descendants who will endure and survive in spite of this you know aggressive posturing of the state... I think sometimes Black folks feel like they're losing Black men everywhere. Cops are killing Black men... homosexuals all they want to do is just take Black men from us."

"Christianity might be the lens through which that is kind of rationalized," Bratton added. "At the end of the day, Christian or not, the folks who are spewing this point of view are coming from an environment, from a cultural history, where they have been enslaved. Every aspect of their identity has been formed and directed at them by the person, the institutions that enslaved them — religion being one, government being another. All of these things are at play in these moments with Krystal and her family... I hope that people are listening to what they say in the film ... and adding it up as they watch what happens when kick your children out."

Brown shared how seeing Dixon being embraced by her brothers "gave me hope" to which Algernal added he cried when he first saw that scene play out in the doc.

"The way her brothers loved on her, when I first saw that scene, the contrast of seeing how the women in her family treated her to how the men in the family," he added. "This is love... I wish I grew up with someone protecting me like they protect her."

Bratton noted the film really could speak to both parents and trans youth, saying he wanted to create something that he wished existed when he was a teenager "so that my mom would sit down and have the conversations in the film that her and I never got the chance to have."

Brown later hit on the police presence that can be felt throughout the film, adding the project took five years to make but feels timely as ever with nationwide protests over police brutality. 

"What you see in Pier Kids is the end of the gentrification of the Christopher Street Pier," Bratton said, before touching on gentrification, which he described as "ethnic cleansing," and law enforcement's connection with it. 

"There are populations that need to be cleared... so that people who are worth more can move in. So that means if you are Black and you are outside and you are in a group, you are a threat. You represent the devaluation of property. Therefore you're on high radar of police," Bratton explained. 

Brown was adamant on how Pier Kids must gain distribution so parents can learn from it. 

Bratton shared how at the moment, distribution has been difficult to attain. As one person told him recently at the Tribeca Film Festival, "Your film is not about celebrities, your film is not a bio piece about a famous American designer... Your film is about poor Black gay trans kids."

Bratton added there are "unspoken" boundaries for successful or mainstream documentaries. "You could be going through the worst Black pain of your life as long as you're singing and dancing at some point, as long as you show the industry that you can transcend this pain and achieve something of cultural value that would make me care about your pain... your pain is worthy of consumption and distribution."

Brown emphasized again the necessity for the documentary's distribution, saying for anyone watching this film it would be apparent Bratton has "hit this moment and it's important."  

While giving final remarks about the film and the impact it could have for those who watch, Bratton stressed "I believe this is a story about families, what it means to be an American and this is a story about the gay rights movement."

"This is an interrogation of that movement. Black trans women made it possible for us to get married. All the things that we do to survive this lifestyle that we live, Black trans women laid down the groundwork. How do we look if 50 years later, people who look like them still live like this... We've neglected working-class people of color in our discussion of gay rights. We have not gone to the ghetto, we have not gone to the spaces we have cut off from all sorts of resources, intellectual and material, to make sure that our message is being heard where it needs to be heard most. That's what this film is meant to correct."

For more conversations supporting the LGBTQ+ community, watch The Billboard-Hollywood Reporter second annual Pride Summit and Prom on Saturday, June 13, at bbthrpridesummit.com

The second annual Pride Prom and Summit proudly supports The Trevor Project, the world's largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ young people.

The summit is part of extensive monthlong pride celebrations, which include the inaugural Pride issue of The Hollywood Reporter, guest-edited by leader Ryan Murphy, and the annual Billboard pride issue on June 11. The event celebrates the influence of the LGBTQ community across music, media and entertainment, recognizing the importance of Pride celebrations and their significance in the LGBTQ community.

Watch the full conversation below.