A stone’s throw from where the Stonewall riots started, New York’s Christopher Street Pier is home to a community of homeless black, trans and queer kids, whom the viewer meets in Elegance Bratton’s debut documentary. Pier Kids opens with the statistic that half of America’s homeless youth are LGBT, 40% of whom are people of colour. The film posits that they have been left behind by white-centric post-Stonewall progress – an idea it explores over 90 unflinching minutes, not as a polemic but by hearing the stories of the kids who call the pier their home.
Taking its cues from the 1990 classic Paris Is Burning, the documentary’s diverse accounts tend to share the theme of individuals building their own worlds, paths and families, often having been kicked out by disapproving parents. The emphasis on homelessness distinguishes and focuses Pier Kids, laying responsibility at the doorstep of the state, rather than merely families. In fact, some of the best scenes find Krystal LaBeija (of the legendary House of LaBeija) with her biological family – to her brothers she is a woman, to her mother a man. The film does not judge, but simply observes this intergenerational difference in ideas, none of which appear to matter when Krystal and her aunt sing beautifully together.
Suffice to say the piece is not all this harmonious: it spotlights the hostile police presence on Christopher Street, where members of the community rely on sex work for their income (not that the NYPD need much more excuse to target these young black trans people). There are sad and shocking stories of stealing, transphobic violence and Desean Irby considering contracting HIV because “I’d be housed in three days.” Through it all, Bratton avoids exploitation or misery by focusing on real individuals helping each other through life and even death with elegance and resilience. Pier Kids gives voice to the people so often discussed as some intangible subject of debate, the real-world consequences of which are illuminated by the twinkling lights of Greenwich Village.
Pier Kids is released digitally on demand on 8th October 2021.
Watch the trailer for Pier Kids here: