Category Is … Filmmaker Realness

Posted June 27, 2018 3:45 p.m. EDT

As the sun sank below the New Jersey skyline on a warm Monday, the documentary filmmaker and photographer Elegance Bratton was strolling down Christopher Street in Manhattan. He was headed toward the Hudson River piers, a strip of gentrified urban greenway that still buzzes with the energy of the city’s storied vogue ballroom scene.

Wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with tiny images of Andy Warhol in drag, Bratton had the air of an affable tourist guide whose expertise just happened to be coffee shops that were once pornographic film stores and leather sex shops.

“Whenever I come here, I do this walk 100 times just up and down,” he said. “You always bump into people.”

And then, right on cue, he ran into DeSean Irby, who is a focus of Bratton’s forthcoming documentary, “Pier Kids.” Shot over the course of five years, the film follows the lives of three gay and transgender young people who frequent the waterfront park.

“You trying to indoctrinate new arrivals into the lifestyle?” Bratton said playfully. Irby, 26 and formerly homeless, replied with a theatrical hand gesture of feigned modesty.

Bratton, 39, feels a spiritual connection to his subjects. When he was 16, he was thrown out of his mother’s home in New Jersey for being gay. “Home is where one is most deeply understood,” he said, “and the pier on Christopher Street is home for me.”

The notion of home is also central to “My House,” a 10-episode documentary series that he created, currently showing on Viceland. Following in the footsteps of Jennie Livingston’s groundbreaking 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning,” the show explores the real-life dramas of the house-ball circuit, which has seen a resurgence in recent years, with its influence felt in fashion, pop music and television.

But unlike the anthropological lens of Livingston, which some have called exploitative, Bratton’s series offers an insider’s view on the sociopolitical nuances of today’s scene.

In many ways, Bratton’s highly personal approach to documenting his surrogate creative family is the modern ballroom equivalent of Nan Goldin’s unfiltered images of friends and lovers during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, or Ryan McGinley’s early 2000s portraits of his photogenic downtown Manhattan crew.

“Elegance knows the lingo, the lifestyle, the culture and the art form of how ballroom is,” said Precious Ebony, 26, a well-known master of ceremonies in the ballroom world. “There’s no edit to the show or added MSG. None of that.”

— ‘Full Metal Jacket’ Meets ‘Moonlight’

Starting with his memorable birth name (“I think my mother naming me Elegance may have predisposed me to become an artist and, you know, gay,” he said, jokingly), Bratton’s backstory is as fascinating as the subjects he documents.

After graduating from Seton Hall Preparatory School, an all-boys’ Catholic school in West Orange, New Jersey, he spent a decade homeless, bouncing “every place from my mother’s home to parks, benches, the pier, lovers’ beds and everything in between,” he said.

At 25, while staying at a shelter in Trenton, he phoned home for help. But since he was “still gay,” his mother, a retired corrections officer, advised him to join the military. As fate would have it, he spotted a recruiter outside the shelter the next morning “looking so cute in his dress blues.” He made up his mind to enlist right then and there, even though openly gay service members were then banned.

By the next year, Bratton was a combat filmmaker stationed in Thailand and later at Camp H.M. Smith in Hawaii, where he made weapons demonstrations videos and was a troop photographer. “The first time I ever picked up a camera was as a Marine,” he said. “The Marine Corps taught me that I wasn’t just something to be thrown away.”

Then, taking advantage of educational benefits available to service members, he ditched his uniform in 2010 and enrolled in Columbia University’s School of General Studies, with a major in African-American studies.

While other undergraduates went to visit their families on breaks, Bratton retreated to Christopher Street to photograph the baby-faced drag performers. He first drew notice in 2015, when he published “Bound by Night,” a photography book that captured the house ballroom scene in Harlem.

He took a fly-on-the-wall approach, shooting performers applying makeup in the bathroom, wigs in hand, and the book was nominated for an award at the prestigious Fotobook Festival in Kassel, Germany. It sold out at art-book shops like Bookmarc and Printed Matter.

The next year, he released a 12-minute film, “Walk for Me,” about the maternal role that transgender women play at balls. It garnered attention at film festivals including Outfest.

If Bratton’s biography — from homeless youth to closeted military brat to Ivy League-educated filmmaker — sounds like a Hollywood screenplay, that is because he is writing it, as part of a script lab at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He calls it “'Full Metal Jacket’ meets ‘Moonlight.'”

— ‘Slay Queen’

As the Christopher Street pier began to fill after dark, Bratton found an empty seat and surveyed the new faces. He waved to Vixen Marcille, a transgender actress who came over to share the news that she recently filmed a role for the FX show “Pose,” Ryan Murphy’s new scripted series on ballroom culture in 1980s New York.

Bratton beamed with pride. “I always knew you were a star,” he said.

Shows like “Pose” and “My House” are just the latest examples of ballroom’s growing reach and influence. It can also be seen in art (Nick Cave’s dance performance “The Let Go,” at the Park Avenue Armory), fashion (runway shows by Hood by Air and Telfar), reality TV (“RuPaul’s Drag Race” features a recurring ball challenge) and music (Beyoncé has adopted the ballroom command “slay queen” as one of her mottos).

Nearby, a group of so-called pier kids were practicing new dance moves. Bratton watched with intense interest before offering his analysis. “In ‘vogue femme’ there is a move called a ‘dip’ — a dancer tosses themselves in the air and falls daintily dead,” he said. “Then they bounce back up and keep battling.”

“This to me is the spirit of black gay life,” he added. “Knock me down? Sure, I’ll play dead, but when I get back up, game’s over.”