Filmmaker Elegance Bratton on Queer History, His Mom, & Finding Home

Filmmaker Elegance Bratton on Queer History, His Mom, & Finding Home

Of the roughly two million homeless youth in America, nearly half of them are queer kids of color. Documentary films like Paris Is Burning or fictional television series like Pose have brought the names and faces of New York’s homeless youth, many of whom were part of the LGBTQ ballroom scene, to the masses, but with the recently released documentary Pier Kids, filmmaker Elegance Bratton paints a raw portrait of their realities.

Over the course of five years, Bratton followed the lives of homeless queer and trans youth who could be seen voguing in the ballroom scene at night and at the Christopher Street Pier by day, revealing the reality of facing extreme brutality and homophobia. Where Paris Is Burning and Pose are two pieces of popular culture that are steeped in ideas of fantasy as revolution or fashion as a form of radical armor, “Pier Kids is getting behind that armor and glamour of the ballroom scene, and getting into the true, lived experience of homeless queer youth in America,” Bratton, who is also Black and queer, said. “I wanted to identify a phenomenon that I viewed as consistently happening,” he said of the documentary’s title, adding that were it not for the rebellious acts from those living at Christopher Street Piers like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in 1969, there might not even be a modern gay rights movement that paved the way for films and shows like Pose and Pier Kids.

Up next, Bratton finds himself at the helm of The Inspection, a film produced by A24 and based on his experience in the military, starring Jeremy Pope and Gabrielle Union. But his journey toward filmmaking is a roundabout one, starting with a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps that led him to the camera. The films he’s made circumnavigate ideas of realness and passing—and as such, films like Imitation of Life by director Douglas Sirk have impacted Bratton’s work from Day One. In his Freeze Frame interview, he discusses how the 1959 drama still influences his movies, and his newly established position in the Black queer cinematic canon.

Elegance Bratton photographed by Chester Algernal Gordon.

How did you become interested in filmmaking?

I came to filmmaking by way of a happy accident. My mother kicked me out when I was 16 years old for being gay; I spent another decade homeless after that. I joined the Marines and after taking the entrance exam, I scored very high. My recruiter suggested I pick the top fields in the Marine Corps, and one of those happens to be filmmaking. When I got into the Marines, I did combat filmmaking and photography, and graphic design. I fell in love with what the camera can do in terms of helping people understand those who are different from them.

Where were you based?

I was based in Hawaii, and in that unit we traveled a lot to Thailand. Those were my first experiences getting paid to make something like a film. The military gave me exposure without much know-how, but that exposure was critical in my engaging in the art form.

How long were you in the military?

Five years. In the Marine Corps, you move every four years. After about three years in Hawaii, I was a critic for a local indie music magazine. My commander suggested I move to New York because I wanted to be an artist outside of the Marines; he had a job for me being a military police officer there, and I was able to begin the circuitous route toward where I am today. But at my duty station in Hawaii, we did primarily retirement stations—a lot of people want to retire there. This general had written his retirement ceremony script and called me up. It turns out he needed advice on a retirement script. It was the first time in my life a white, straight man had asked me for my opinion on anything. [Laughs.] I was like, “Oh, he thinks I’m a film director. Maybe I should try this.”

After moving to New York, you made some short films, and Pier Kids is your feature documentary debut. What was it about the ballroom scene that made you want to document it on film?

Pier Kids is the first film I started making. I got into Columbia University in 2011 and had a project to find real, existing social networks. Immediately, I thought of Christopher Street Pier, because when I was kicked out of my house at 16, that was the first place I went to. It was where I started to see what it meant to be a Black queer person. I realized my experience of being homeless there was not just my experience, that it was a whole bunch of us still out there who were going through the consequences of being exiled from the Black community. I also found there was a lot of pride in this community and our ability to survive what had been done to us, and to reinvent what family meant to us. I started thinking deeply about where home was. For people who are homeless, finding homes in one another is really poignant. Pier Kids, and to a lesser extent, my fascination with the ballroom scene, came out of my fascination with a notion of home being a place where people are most deeply understood.

Pose, Paris Is Burning, and a few other films and shows come to mind as reference points that address those same themes. Where do you think Pier Kids will be situated in that canon?

Pier Kids is definitely in conversation with Paris Is Burning and Pose—also, my Viceland show My House, which was on around the time Pose premiered. I was doing it as a student at Columbia University, when I was majoring in Anthropology, African American Studies, and French. [At that time,] I approached my life and film with a postcolonial worldview. Stylistically speaking, Pier Kids is steeped in the aesthetics of its community. That is one element that differentiates it and makes it an urgent contribution to this canon of Black queer cinema, which also includes Marlon Riggs, and so many others who were Black and filming balls before Paris Is Burning—but are just now starting to get that spotlight.

I imagine it must have been emotionally taxing at times, especially since you relived some of what you experienced in your youth. How did you take care of yourself while filming?

It was extremely triggering. I’m just starting to look after my own mental health. I didn’t come from a background of deep, meaningful conversation around self-care. In fact, it was quite the opposite. If my mom was sick or sad or furious, she still had to work. When I was making Pier Kids, I would spend the first part of the week on campus at Columbia, and the second part of the week on the pier with my participants. I was both invested in the transformation of my life after homelessness, but also reliving my own homeless experience for five years straight. I am grateful for that trigger in a way, because I grew up learning to suppress my emotional struggles and Pier Kids forced me to go back to a time I had pushed down, bring it back to the surface, and resolve complicated feelings of shame and issues of self esteem and self worth.

You chose to speak about Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life for Freeze Frame today. Like Pier Kids, Imitation of Life maintains a very particular aesthetic and style; you only need to see a few frames of a Sirk film to know it’s his work, especially because of the richness of his color palettes and characters. Why was that film, particularly the final moment between Sarah Jane and Annie, so impactful for you as a filmmaker?

Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) and Annie (Juanita Moore) reminded me of my mother and myself. My mom had me when she was 16, and we didn’t have much money growing up. My mother, like a lot of Black women, was a hustler. We may have gone hungry one day, but the next day, she figured out how to make sure that didn’t happen again. Annie knows she’s in a tough position and needs to save her daughter and family. That type of hunger and urgency is how my mother lived her life when I was with her, and I saw myself in that moment. The relationship between children and their mothers, I find very validating to watch. Imitation of Life is a tragic love story between a mother and a child, and ultimately, that’s what mine is with my own mother.

Were there any other moments in the film that you saw yourself or your mother in, and related to what was happening on screen?

My mother also worked really hard to send me to the best private schools. In that movie, Lora’s daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) goes to private school with Sarah Jane. I understood what it was like to be a Black kid in a rich private school and you’re not rich, your mom can just pay for you to go there and have books, but you don’t have huge birthday parties, ride horses, or play tennis. I also identify with Sarah Jane’s shame in her mother being a single working Black woman, because at the schools I went to, those white kids had mommy, daddy, grandma, grandpa, and everybody had the same last name in their family. That’s not what my family was.

Is there anything about Imitation of Life that thematically, rather than aesthetically, influenced your process of making Pier Kids?

These are themes that, as a Black gay man, have become resonant in my life experience. With Pier Kids, my experience being Black and gay and homeless, I navigated invisibility my whole life—how to be invisible in a way that is relevant and passable to a system that is interested in excluding me at best and eliminating me at worst.

In Imitation of Life, there’s this idea of “realness.” Even the idea of Rock Hudson being a romantic interest in Sirk movies—it’s clear that Sirk is very much an artist consumed with realness and passability. This idea of credible, passable masculinity—to some degree, I went into the Marine Corps to gain how to do that in that world, because I felt like without having that language, I would forever be in poverty. I identify with Douglas Sirk’s canon, especially Imitation of Life, and how it interrogates our notion of what is real through identity, [how it] acknowledges that all identity politics are manmade, and the way it challenges us to discover where we make the choices to be or not to be ourselves, to see or not to see someone else.

There’s a version of this film directed by John M. Stahl in 1934, and it is based on a novel by Fannie Hurst. Do you think Imitation of Life could be remade a third time?

The first one is also very good! I have an idea for a modern one, too. But let me finish The Inspection first and I’ll come back to it. [Laughs.] I would love to remake it. I’m interested in a Rachel Dolezal version—she’s infuriating but endlessly fascinating.

Your next film, The Inspection, is also about a mother and child. Were you inspired by the Sirk aesthetic for that, too?

I’m making peace with the fact that in some capacity I’m a melodramatist. The Inspection is very much about my own life—a homeless guy joins the Marine Corps to win back his mother’s love, but then must conceal his attraction to his drill instructor. It’s driven by a maternal relationship very much like Sirk’s work, it’s filmed in a richly, geometrically aligned style that harkens back to the formalism of Sirk. I love The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo, and that influenced The Inspection as well. I also love Pedro Almodóvar—I just love a filmmaker who talks about their mom because I’m perplexed by my own. Those movies make me feel less alone.

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