When Elegance Bratton was 16, his mother kicked him out of her house because he was gay.
The filmmaker was homeless for almost a decade until he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps – an unexpected choice, given that the military did not accept gay and lesbian servicemen that if they remained locked up (which has been called the “don’t ask, don’t tell“politics). Although Bratton faced discrimination, serving in the military eventually gave him purpose and set him on a path to writing and directing films. His first feature film, “The Inspection”, is the culmination of these experiences.
“I really believed that I was worthless because of my sexuality,” Bratton recalled. “I had no place in the world. As a black gay kid, I felt like any door I tried to walk through, I encountered some form of hostility or ostracism. I thought, ‘There is nothing for me in this world. I’m going to die young anyway, like all my friends, so I’ll die in uniform. I was lucky enough to have a drill instructor say, “Your life is precious because you have the responsibility to protect the Navy to your left and your right. This responsibility has been transformational.
At the time, Bratton did not plan to write the story of his life. He served as a combat camera production specialist in the Marines, where he made short films for the military, and went on to study at Columbia University. Then in 2017, while enrolled in Tisch’s graduate film program, Bratton wrote the first draft of “The Inspection,” a dramatized version of his time in boot camp. The screenplay was one of three written by Bratton at the time, but his partner – Chester Algernal Gordon, producer of “The Inspection” – encouraged him to look at the personal side of the story.
“I thought, ‘Which one should I do? Which one should I spend my time on?'” Bratton recalled. Gordon’s response: “Look, what you do best as a storyteller is ‘to take people to a place they could never go without you.’
It was an uphill battle to gain support for the project. Bratton applied to over 60 screenwriting labs and was rejected by all of them. Eventually, it was accepted into the Film Independent’s Fast Track forum, which resulted in a deluge of funding offers. The film was greenlit by A24 in February 2020, starring Jeremy Pope as Ellias French, Bratton’s on-screen version, and Gabrielle Union as Inez, his mother. It was a bittersweet moment for Bratton as his real mother, who he hadn’t spoken to in 10 years, died three days later.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t had a chance to resolve anything,” Bratton says. “That’s why I’m so grateful to Gabrielle Union, because she helped bring my mother back to life for me and brought, on a personal level, closure that my mother couldn’t offer me from her My mother was a very complicated woman – she was the first person to love me completely, she was also the first person to reject me completely.
This relationship is central to “The Inspection,” though Union and Pope only share three scenes in the film. Each scene, which Bratton extracted from real-life conversations with his mother, is key to understanding French’s transformation as he discovers the ability to love himself during brutal boot camp. For Pope, the tension between French and Inez was his North Star.
“His approval is the thing that [French] wants so desperately,” says Pope. “And through that, he finds self-acceptance. [Bratton] never hated his mother – it was something very important at the beginning that we shared. The film tries to get closer to understanding these complexities and how we can misunderstand each other. In the Marines, it becomes: Even in our differences, how can we care for each other and care for each other and try to find common ground? How can we protect the man to our left and our right if it is our responsibility as humans?
Bratton’s mother is unable to see the film “or witness its genius and brilliance,” Pope said. “But I believe she shines, and very proud and happy that he continues to be the light he always was.”
French’s tumultuous journey through boot camp, where he finds the unlikely support of an instructor (Raúl Castillo), has been partially fictionalized. Unlike the French, Bratton was not foggy. But for the filmmaker, the way the team treats French people for being gay reflects the reality many recruits face. Bratton and cinematographer Lachlan Milne wanted to convey this deep history of discrimination visually to make the story more universal.
‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ got its name in the 90s, but in reality, gay servicemen have been forced to serve in silence for almost 80 years,” Bratton explains. “We decided on a hybrid strategy to approach the shooting of the film, from where [French’s] point of view it’s a pocket movie, European style. But when you see French in the world, it’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and it’s ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’. We wanted to create a visual language that would suggest the shaky ground queer troupes have stood on for these 80 years. So the French wouldn’t be just me. French could be representative of several generations of people who have experienced this.
Early on, Bratton knew he wanted to cast Pope, known for his role in the TV series “Pose” and his Tony-nominated work on Broadway, as a Frenchman. It was essential for the director that a queer black actor take on the role as he grew up unable to see himself reflected on screen, an experience shared by Pope.
“I hadn’t seen a black gay movie star,” Pope says. “Is this something I could dream of being?” For this to be my first track [in a] the movie is amazing. And even though being queer is just one layer of me – and I think I’m very nuanced and have so many qualities to share – I think it’s so important to be able to move forward in this area. There were so many years when I was ashamed and afraid of being an actor outside the medium. This film, I think, will be a resource and something tangible for someone who says, “I saw it”. I know it’s possible because I’ve seen it.
Although “The Inspection” tackles complicated themes of rejection and homophobia, it is an uplifting film. It allows French to triumph, as did Bratton himself. For the filmmaker, the story isn’t just about his own life – it’s about the possibility that humanity can come together despite its divisions.
“I don’t think you can come from where I’m from and get here if you’re not optimistic,” Bratton says. “I am optimistic for America. I’m optimistic about being black and gay. I am optimistic that masculinity is a place of healing, not a place of trauma. I also believe that triumph is so sweet when it’s over adversity. I think sometimes we are afraid to face the adversity of the times in which we live because we do not believe we can triumph. I wanted to create a film that could inspire the belief that you can overcome.