Premiering in 2019 at the LA Outfest Film Festival, Elegance Bratton’s feature debut arrives on UK screens. Following in the footsteps of legendary documentary Paris Is Burning, Pier Kids is a poignant and chaotic study of a community of young black gay men and trans women who congregate at the piers of Hudson River Park, New York City.
Pier Kids opens with a note that while mainstream society has – to an extent – commemorated the Stonewall Riots as a landmark in the struggle for gay civil rights, the black LGBTQ+ people who participated have largely been erased from that history. Moreover, black gay men and women are disproportionately represented among the estimated hundreds of thousands of the United States’ homeless population, and vulnerable to violence, poverty, drugs and sexual exploitation.
Many of those homeless young people are drawn to the famous Christopher Street Pier, at which community, sex and money through sex work can be found. Jersey-born Bratton has first-hand experience of his subjects’ lives. He was kicked out of his home at the age of 16 and found himself homeless as a black gay man. Although Paris Is Burning is an obvious touchstone for Pier Kids, Bratton’s film is in some ways more subversive as a narrative documentary, bouncing from one character to the next. It is unpredictable in the much the same way as his subjects’ lives.
People come in and out of the frame to reappear later; the camera catches the ends of arguments, the beginnings of conversations; the middle of trauma and healing, and of family dynamics. It is all chaotic and elliptical and vital. His subjects, too are unforgettable. One young man who, in one moment amusingly describes his food-stealing gift card scam as ‘confiscating’ before confessing to considering contracting HIV as a way of accessing help to get off streets, encapsulates the unity of comedy and tragedy that defines Pier life.
Bratton has previously noted the influence of Marlon Rigg’s 1989 film Tongues Untied on his film’s form, but wanting to push his film further in its representation of black transgender women. In this, Bratton fuses experimental form with the recent narrative-based success of the TV drama Pose, which he has also praised as an important document representing the role that trans women have played in the nurturing of families to protect the Pier-bound communities.
Elsewhere, Bratton poetically captures a fractured America; an inebriated finance bro, on his way to the banking district, stops at the pier for a chat, chatty but clearly somewhat uncomfortable, can’t help but bring up Obama; fireworks explode on the other side of the river while Pride revellers and the Police clash. The most poignant through-line, however, is with Krystal, whose mother and aunt, back home in Kansas City love her but cannot accept the fact that the son and nephew that they see is a woman.