Viceland’s docuseries My House has absolutely nothing to do with interior design. Rather than being a YouTube-channel version of, say, HGTV’s Fixer-Upper, its subject is New York City’s ballroom scene.
But this is not a Dancing With the Stars-style “ballroom scene.” With not a merengue in sight, it is best described as a series of underground fashion show competitions organized and attended almost exclusively by queer people of color—five of whom are the focus of My House. (The titular “house” refers not to a home, but a “family” of fellow performers.)
In a visit to campus on Nov. 5 that was co-sponsored by the Haverford Distinguished Visitors Program, the Haverford Visual Studies Program, and the Bi-Co Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, My House executive producer Elegance Bratton played some clips from the show and spoke at length about the importance of portraying marginalized identities onscreen.
“How do we see black people talking about their problems in pop culture?” he says wryly. “Nine times out of ten, it’s in song and dance.”
There is no shortage of either in My House, which aired from April to June 2018 and, with an estimated cost of $3.5 million, stands as Vice’s most expensive production to date.
Bratton freely admits that the show is “a spectacle.” But he doesn’t believe that its flashy aesthetics detract from its ability to make a meaningful statement about class, race, and sexuality in modern America.
“The spectacle here is like the spoonful of sugar that Mary Poppins gives to the Banks kids to help their medicine go down easier,” he says. “Only the medicine here is a message of black empowerment.”
Though My House was marketed as a reality show, Bratton would prefer to think of it as a documentary—a fly-on-the-wall portrayal of real people. Among them: ballroom commentator Precious Ebony and performers Tati 007, who Bratton calls one of his “favorite artists alive on Earth;” Jelani Mizrahi, a former ward of the state who comes out to his biological father in one particularly affecting episode; Lolita Balenciaga, who quit her job to move to New York and “live out her dream” of “voguing,” or dancing; and Alex Mugler, who works various “side hustles” to make ends meet.
As Bratton says, “I like to have a hands-on filmmaking technique. I’m looking to get at the truth of an experience, whether that comes in the form of a sigh or facial reaction, even.”
Such a detail-oriented and involved creative style did, he admits, pit him against Vice executives at multiple points throughout the production process.
“It was a crazy time to make [My House],” Bratton says, comparing the experience to a game of telephone. “With more resources come more voices and more people, so getting a decision approved meant that you had to go through a whole series of people. With Precious, for example, there was a clash between how they wanted to portray her—that is, in the best light possible—and how Precious wanted to be portrayed that erased her truth as a black, queer, obese woman trying to not die of the same preventable things her family members had died of.”
But, as the show holds a 98% positive rating on Google Reviews, it seems that his hard work paid off in the end. Bratton’s determined to look forward, however—not back. Currently, he’s in the process of editing his new movie, Pier Kids, which is, he says, “about a gay boy who joins the Marines to learn how to be straight.”
“It’s Full Metal Jacket meets Moonlight, essentially,” he quips.
Though fictional, Pier Kids, like My House, spotlights the black queer community Bratton is proudly a part of.
“I’m honest with myself about the political situation I’m in, the social situation, and the economic situation, and I try to make work that reflects that,” he says. “I try to make work that reflects the world I live in and reaches the communities that I care about.”