To outsiders, New York City may be one thing—whether they consider it the cultural capital of the world or a stinking hellhole—but New Yorkers know their city is many things, and no one knows them all. Most of all, it is a collection of subcultures—former mayor David Dinkins called it a “gorgeous mosaic” (pointedly not a “melting pot”)—and one of the great delights of the city is the variety of ways people find to live there.
Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning introduced many people, myself included, to ball culture, something that dates back to at least the late 19th century. It’s not just about the balls, magnificent as they are, but about queer and trans young people of color, many of whom were rejected from their biological families, finding their place and the world and forming new, intentional families. Sara Jordenö’s 2016 documentary Kiki provided an updated look at the ball scene and offered insights about a new generation of young people who have claimed their place within it.
Pier Kids: The Life, directed by Elegance Bratton, comes at a related subject in a different, more overtly political, way, making it perhaps a second cousin once removed to those two films. Bratton’s subject is the lives of the poor, often homeless, young queer and trans people of color in New York City, particularly those who hang out around the Christopher Street Pier. While one of the individuals featured is a member of the House of LaBeija, and you see others performing informally from time to time, there’s no ball in this film, because Bratton’s interest is far more in his subjects’ day-to-day existence. He makes this point of view clear from the start, opening with a series of title cards stating:
In the wake of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the world cheered the advancement of white queers and ignored the fates of queer people of color. Out of America’s two million homeless youth, more than half are LGBT. 40% of those queer youth are people of color.
Bratton is no stranger to the world of the Pier Kids, having been kicked out of his New Jersey home at age 16 and finding his way to Christopher Street and the Pier, where he was homeless for several years before joining the Marine Corps. The Marines trained him as a Combat Camera Production Specialist, skills he put to good use in Pier Kids, along with insights gained from his coursework at Columbia University, where he majored in Anthropology and African American Studies.
The greatest asset of Pier Kids is Bratton’s comfort with his subjects, and theirs with him, which enables him to capture a remarkably unfiltered view of their lives. At its best, Pier Kids is an immersive film that gives you a sense of what it’s like to live as these young people do. What he does less well is create any kind of structure or narrative focus that gives you a reason to keep watching for 84 minutes. No one’s daily life is particularly interesting from one minute to the next, and the world is full of people who will keep talking as long as they have an audience (white dude in a windowpane shirt, I’m looking at you–but also at the filmmaker, who chose to include so much of his rambling discourse). It’s an old saw that films are made in the cutting room, and for this type of documentary, the editing truly makes the film. Bratton too often includes shots and entire scenes that could better have been left on the cutting-room floor, making it too easy for the stories of the few individuals who are followed at some length, including Krystal LaBeija, to get lost among all the less essential footage competing for your attention. | Sarah Boslaugh
Pier Kids is available for streaming as part of QFest St. Louis 2020, which runs from June 19 through June 28. Individual film tickets are $10 ($8 for Cinema St. Louis members and students), and all-access festival passes are $75 ($60 for Cinema St. Louis members). Further information is available from the festival web site.