When Elegance Bratton was 16 years old, his mother kicked him out of her house for being gay.
The filmmaker was homeless for nearly a decade until he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps — an unexpected choice, given that the military accepted gay and lesbian service members only if they stayed closeted (what came to be called the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy). Although Bratton faced discrimination, serving in the military ultimately gave him a sense of purpose and set him on the path to writing and directing films. His debut feature, “The Inspection,” is the culmination of those experiences.
“I really did believe that I was worthless because of my sexuality,” Bratton recalls. “I had no place in the world. As a Black gay kid, it felt like any door I tried to walk through, I was met with some form of hostility or ostracism. I thought, ‘There’s nothing for me in this world. I’m going to die young anyway, like all my friends did, so I’ll die in a uniform.’ I was fortunate enough to have a drill instructor say, ‘Your life is valuable because you have a responsibility to protect the Marine to your left and to your right.’ That responsibility was transformational.”
At the time, Bratton didn’t consider writing his life story. He served as a combat camera production specialist in the Marines, where he made short movies 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 script was one of three Bratton wrote at the time, but his partner — Chester Algernal Gordon, who is a producer on “The Inspection” — encouraged him to lean into the personal aspect of the story.
“I was like, ‘Which one should I make? Which one should I dedicate my time to?’” Bratton recalls. Gordon’s response: “Listen, the thing you do best as a storyteller is bringing people to a place they could never go without you.”
It was an uphill battle to get support for the project. Bratton applied to more than 60 screenwriting labs and was rejected by all of them. Finally, he was accepted to Film Independent’s Fast Track forum, which resulted in a deluge of financing offers. The film was greenlit by A24 in February 2020, with Jeremy Pope cast as Ellias French, the onscreen version of Bratton, and Gabrielle Union as Inez, his mother. It was a bittersweet moment for Bratton because his real mother, whom he hadn’t spoken to in 10 years, died three days later.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to resolve anything,” Bratton says. “This is why I’m so grateful to Gabrielle Union, because she helped to bring my mother back to life for me and provide, on a personal level, some closure that my mother couldn’t provide me in her lifetime. My mom was a very complicated woman — she was the first person to ever love me completely. She was also the first person to ever reject me wholly.”
That relationship is central to “The Inspection,” although Union and Pope share only three scenes in the film. Each scene, which Bratton mined from real conversations with his mother, is pivotal to understanding French’s transformation as he uncovers the ability for self-love in the course of the brutal boot camp. For Pope, the tension between French and Inez was his North Star.
“Her approval is the thing that [French] so desperately wants,” Pope explains. “And through that he finds self-acceptance. [Bratton] never hated his mom — that was something that was very important early on that we shared. The film is trying to get closer to understanding those complexities and how we can misunderstand each other. In the Marines it becomes about: Even in our differences, how can we look after each other and care for each other and try to find common ground? How can we protect the man to our left and to our right if that is our responsibility as humans?”
Bratton’s mother is not able to see the film “or to witness his genius and his brilliance,” Pope said. “But I do believe that she’s shining down, and very proud and happy that he is going to continue to be the light that he always was.”
French’s tumultuous journey through boot camp, where he finds unlikely support from an instructor (Raúl Castillo), was partially fictionalized. Unlike French, Bratton wasn’t hazed. But for the filmmaker, the way the squad treats French for being gay reflects the reality faced by many recruits. Bratton and cinematographer Lachlan Milne wanted to convey that 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, queer service members were forced to serve in silence for almost 80 years,” Bratton says. “We decided on a hybrid strategy to approach the filming of the movie, where from [French’s] point of view it’s a handheld, European-style film. But when we 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 that queer troops stood on for those 80 years. That way, French would not just be me. French could be representative of multiple generations of people who have gone through this.”
Early on, Bratton knew he wanted to cast Pope, known for his role on the TV series “Pose” and his Tony-nominated work on Broadway, as French. It was essential to the director that a queer, Black actor take on the role because he grew up unable to see himself reflected on the screen, an experience Pope shared.
“I hadn’t seen a Black gay movie star,” Pope says. “Is that something I could dream to be? For this to be my first lead [in a] film is incredible. And while being queer is just one of the layers of me — and I do believe I’m very nuanced and have so many qualities to share — I think it’s so important to be able to step forward in that. There were so many years where I was ashamed and scared to be an out actor in the business. This film, I think, will be a resource and something tangible for someone out there who goes, ‘I saw it. I know it’s possible because I saw it.’”
Although “The Inspection” grapples with complicated themes of rejection and homophobia, it is an uplifting movie. It allows French to triumph, as Bratton himself did. For the filmmaker, the story is about more than just his own life — it’s about the possibility that humanity can come together despite its divisions.
“I don’t think you could come from where I’ve come from and get here if you’re not an optimist,” Bratton says. “I’m optimistic about America. I’m optimistic about being Black and gay. I’m optimistic about the possibility of masculinity being a place of healing and not a place of trauma. I also believe that triumph is so sweet when it’s over adversity. I think that sometimes we’re afraid to face the adversity of the times that we live in because we don’t believe we can triumph. I wanted to create a movie that could inspire the belief that you can overcome.”