Walk for Me
When he was sixteen, director Elegance Bratton left his childhood home in New Jersey and headed to Christopher Street. Like a lot LGBTQ teens of color from the greater NYC area—many of them rejected by their families for their sexuality and gender expression—he found a new home on that West Village thoroughfare, immersing himself in the community there, as well as the city's thriving ballroom scene. His new narrative short, Walk for Me—which follows a young ballroom performer, Hanna, as she steps out into the world as a woman—is a rare film about the scene from someone who actually grew up inside of it. Aside from Hanna's corrections-officer mother, Andrea—played by The Get Down actress Yolonda Ross, who is also slated to appear on Showtime's upcoming The Chi—its cast consists entirely of performers and personalities from the ballroom world, including Aaliya King, Brenda Holder, Kia LaBeija, and MikeQ, whose recent Qween Beat label compilation, Queendom, gives the film its propulsive soundtrack.
But Walk for Me—which is currently touring the festival circuit, and recently took home an award for Best LGBTQ film from Ann Arbor—isn't just a ballroom story. It's also a story about motherhood, and the complexities of family life for queer teens like Hanna. Through a delicate choreography of loaded glances and small hand gestures, it captures Hanna's struggle for acceptance from her biological mother, as well as her discovery of a second support system in Paris Continental, a fictional vogue femme legend played by real-life vogue femme starlette Brenda Holder. We spoke to Bratton about the story behind Walk for Me, and why you can't talk about ballroom without talking about family.
THUMP: How did you get involved with this community?
Elegance Bratton: I was kicked out of my house when I was 16 for being gay; my mom basically made it impossible for me to be home because of my sexuality. After I left, I hopped on a train. I was really upset and I didn't have any money, but I saw three black gay guys having a really good time, so I followed them to a place called Christopher Street, and Christopher Street became kind of like a spiritual home for me.
Ten years later, after some time in the military, I got to Columbia University and was like, "Who am I? Where am I from?" So I went back to Christopher Street and started making a documentary. From that doc—which was called Pier Kids: The Life—I published a photo book called Bound By Night. It dawned on me that the thing I had gotten from the community—from being black and gay—was this new family, this chosen family.
I got into NYU Tisch, and I wrote Walk For Me for my second year film. It was inspired by my own journey of being homeless and having to make a new family. Bound By Night is about families that are bound by the time of day and not by blood—how did these trans women mentor and raise gay children? So when it came time to make a film, it was a no-brainer for me to retrace my footsteps and to get into the story of Hanna.
How did you come up with the story?
I spent about four years going to balls pretty much every weekend. You go there and you see a wide range of age groups in the femme queen and trans women categories. And it's like two or three o'clock in the morning, and [many] these kids are like 13, 14, 15 years old. And I'm just like, where are their parents at? Like where's your mom at, your actual mom? It all started from that question.
My favorite filmmaker is Mike Leigh, so I love mixing documentary and narrative. The way Mike Leigh does things is that he will cast a real cop [to play] a cop. I did a similar thing with this film. The ballroom scene is like Hollywood—you're surrounded by brilliant performers. So I started going to balls with Aaliya King in character as Hanna. Aaliya is a legend in the ballroom scene, so I had to bring her back to where she started as a young girl and just be like, "Remember what it was like not to know what you were doing?" I would literally go into her bag and take things from her without her knowing it, so she'd be forced to get back into that place. And then once she was in character as Hanna, I brought Brenda Holder into it. I would give Brenda 50 bucks and say, "Okay, I want you to buy Aaliya something to eat"—just to build that bond between them.
Why was it important to you to make a narrative film?
It was important for me to make a narrative because there are no narratives about the ballroom scene that are to me of any real quality. The other thing is that nobody who's from the community has ever made a story about the community. I really wanted to talk about the contemporary 21st century queer black experience as I've witnessed it through my skin.
How did you meet the performers?
After I finished a first draft of the script, I went back to Vogue Knights, when it was still at Escualita. I told my fiancé Chester, "I need a girl who is really beautiful as a girl, but believable as a boy." When I got to the club, it was closed, but Aaliya was standing right outside. Chester was like, "She has all the qualities you're talking about." So I went and spoke to her and I was like, "Hey, I'm writing this movie and I'm gonna audition you." Fast forward a few months, and I ended up casting her.
Brenda is a big, big deal. There's like tens of thousands of people in the queer black world who look at Brenda and are like, "I wanna be like her." She's a real, classic, Douglas Sirk, Busby Berkley kind of showgirl. So when I was writing the script, I was writing it off of her Facebook page—like, "Oh, what is she doing here? I wonder what the story would be—let me try to write a scene." I was too shy to ask her to be in it, but Chester wrote her and was like, "My boyfriend wants you to be in this movie." And she auditioned and she just-—I mean. Her face is such an emotive instrument. Brenda's entire life has been about embodying her identity, so I was able to call on that experience to inform this character.
Your portrayal of the ballroom community feels very naturalistic; it's not a Hollywood representation.
Yeah. It's gotta be real. And that's why the hybrid form makes so much sense to me. These folks—they're used to being documented in a documentary way, but once you give them the permission to be able to be imaginative within that gaze, then you start to get something way more interesting. Even the background talent in this film was great. They all were wonderful because they're sitting at home in gentrifying New York city, waiting for someone to say, "What can you do?" So when I showed up and said, "Can you do something in my film?" they just went above and beyond.
What was on your mind when you wrote the script?
I would describe Pier Kids as a blues documentary where the characters find family, but never quite connect with the families that rejected them. Just like me—I have never really quite reconnected with my blood family. But with Walk for Me, realized that I wanted to do a different type of story, cause that's not the only story in the community. There are people who transition and are still with their moms, their families, and are better for it. So I wanted to create a film that showed a black mom who's willing to figure out how to make it work. Once I got the people casted, they looked at the script and they were like, "Oh my god, this is just like me except this, except that." So to make it more their characters, I started to incorporate their experiences into the script.
Walk for Me
Tell me about the role of motherhood in the film.
We spend so much time villainizing single mothers for being, you know, single—and we don't think about how hard they work to take care of their kids, and how powerful that love is. Hanna's mother, Andrea—in my head, she works 60 hours a week to make sure that her son has everything he needs to be able to be a good citizen. When you've invested that type of time and emotion in someone, it doesn't make sense just to wash your hands of them. You don't want to have your kid destitute out there. So ultimately, this mother says, "Okay, of the two things that I have to deal with, as long as I find a way to call you by your name, I still have the chance to make sure that you're good to go."
What does Andrea do for a living?
She's a corrections officer. My mother is a retired corrections officer, and I always thought her experience of the prison system colored the way she looked at homosexuals. You have a lot of rape in jail; you also have a lot of men who go into jail "straight," and come out as gay or sometimes even transgender. That behavior is all against the rules, so a huge part of her professionalism was policing the sexuality of queer men. As a single mother, Andrea also has to operate on two levels—like, "I'm a father and a mother to this child." That's one of her internal dilemmas: "I'm a father and a mother to this child, but I also exist in this professional world where my femininity is kind of like a detriment."
Who are other personalities from the scene appear in the film?
We have Dominique "Tyra A. Ross," who's on the television show Strut. Kia LaBeija's in it. Michael Cox, aka DJ MikeQ—he's briefly in it. Oh, and Princess Ebony—pretty much the whole Qween Beat family has a role. I even used their music. I've been making the argument for a while now that house ballroom music is a new genre of black American music in the vein of hip-hop, jazz, and soul; with that in mind, it was a no-brainer to feature MikeQ. He recently put out the first release from Qween Beat, and I wanted to feature that music, because this is the music that these kids listen to. When I'm on Christopher Street at two in the morning, they're blasting MikeQ beats, and they're perfecting their vogue to it.
I wrote the title, "Walk for Me," as Mike was finalizing the album. Mike sent me the album, and when the track "Skyshaker" came on, I was like, "Oh my god, the chorus of this song is the name of my film! This works perfectly—can I use it?"
And then Ash B.'s song "Realness"—"I'ma give you realness, I'ma give you cunt, I will serve you down for weeks, I will serve you down for months"—that's the essence of what this is all about. On the surface, it's [about] walking a category and being a real woman or a real man, but on a much deeper level, it's about being human. It's about being able to be seen and acknowledged for who you are with respect—and that's a universal human desire.
With the ball sequence in the film, was the goal to capture the scene as it is now, in 2016, or to capture the older and younger generations together?
It's the old and the young together. So Brenda's character, Paris Continental—even the name Continental is an old ballroom house. Brenda still carries the name, and if you look at the drag pageant circuit, the name is still relevant, but on the ballroom floor it's not really there anymore. And I wanted to call up that history, because AIDS was a scythe that kind of interrupted the passage of information from one generation to the next. Paris and Hanna's relationship to me represents those two things coming together and really, it's what qualifies Paris to be her mother.
Even though they're doing vogue femme in a modern way, the way that Paris makes Hanna up is more in line with the old school side of things. I don't wanna categorize, because there is so much diversity within the scene, but to Paris, even as you fall to the ground, you should be flawless and perfect to look at. They're vogueing femme, so it's contemporary, but the way that Hanna is put together, that attention to detail—that's old school. The mother comes from the disco age—her divas were Diana Ross, Linda Ronstadt, Donna Summer. [These performers are] larger than life, more beautiful than life could ever be. Because in Paris' mind, if you're coming from being a man to being a woman, you need to bring it even more than a cis-gendered woman would.
Why do you think this is an important story to tell right now?
We live in a Trump America, where it would seem that there is a huge backlash going on, and a desire to shove people back into closets, and to push people back into the gutter. So I think it's important that we exalt in one another's difference. I think it's necessary to enjoy difference, and to ask questions about it.
And it's also important for mothers—I saw a story about some mom in South Carolina, I believe, who sued her [teenage] trans daughter for transitioning without her permission. I can't imagine that happened for any other reason than that the gay rights movement, the trans rights movement, never made it to that mom's doorstep. I don't believe that these parents who reject their children for being trans are doing so because they want to their kids to be homeless and get AIDS. They do it because they believe that through tough love, they can force their kids to do what's safe for them to do, to be the gender that they're born in—and that doesn't work. I feel like the gay rights movement hasn't really done enough to reach out to working people of color.
The whole crux of the film, it's about calling people by the names they want to be called. And as long as parents can do that, then they have a door open to their kids to prevent all of the horrible things that they thought would happen as a result from transitioning. You don't have to buy them clothes necessarily, you don't have to pay for the surgeries if you don't want to, but if you call them by the name that they wanna be called, there is more conversations to happen with that child. And it's gonna be okay.
What's next for you? You said you were working on a feature?
[My next project] will be the same characters, same cast—just a lot more in depth. In Walk for Me, we're very contained in the black experience, and in the feature we're looking at these black folks in connection to the city they live in. So there's white characters, there's Asian characters, there's shop owners and Bodegas—you get to see them in the real New York. There's a great scene I'm writing on the Brooklyn Bridge. And it's more about how once Hanna makes this choice, she's in the world.
Catch Walk for Me at festivals across the US:
Garden State Film Festival, April 2, 2017 at 12pm
Athens International Film Festival, April 6, 2017 at 7:30pm
Wicked Queer Boston Saturday, April 8, 2017 at 4pm
Ivy Film Festival at Brown University, April 14, 2017 at 7pm
Queer Hippo International LGBT Film Festival in Houston, April 26-30