Inside is Where the Fight Lay: We interview Elegance Bratton on his film, The Inspection.

words Wilt Hodges

Elegance Bratton The Inspection

The Inspection arrives at an interesting time in the American conversation. The role of its foreign policy, racial justice, and LGBTQ+ rights are among the most contentious issues roiling the nation. However, rarely does a movie come along that allows us to humanize these issues in such an intimate, relatable way.

The Inspection is loosely based on Elegance Bratton’s life. After being shunned (and ultimately, expelled from home) by his mother as a teenager because of his sexuality, he joins the U.S. Marines as a means of survival and a desperate attempt to win back her approval. Actor Jeremy Pope portrays Bratton as Ellis French, in the film, lending immense emotional authority to the story. Indeed, to watch Bratton’s deeply moving story about the meanings of survival is to be transported into a thicket of competing claims around identity, community, survival, and responsibility.

Set during the events of the Iraq War and during the American military’s era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, pressing questions permeate the story, such as: How does one survive, or even find meaning or community, in spaces hell-bent on your demise? Where exactly does the line between neighbor and enemy begin and end? What is the cost of survival? What emerges is a morally complex tale, rendered artfully, in Bratton’s masterful coming-of-age film.

In an interview with Flux Magazine, Bratton sheds light on the sources of these questions – and his vision behind his new film. This conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Elegance Bratton director Inspection
Elegance Bratton

What inspired you to tell this story?

This story comes directly out of my life. I was kicked out of my house when I was sixteen for being gay. And I spent the next ten years, homeless. And I went into the Marine Corps, feeling rather worthless until I had a drill [instructor] tell me that my life had value, meaning, and purpose, because I had a responsibility to protect the marine to my left, and to my right. And I just ran with that. It was something I could hold on to, to kind of pull myself out of a really difficult situation.

At that point I had been out couch-crashing, shelter-crashing – trying to date. One’s dating life becomes kind of a little murky when you’re dating just to have somewhere to live. And I just, you know, felt lost in the idea [of] protecting people. It was transformational for me. And I felt in these times that we live in where things are so very polarized: between right and left; Black and white; straight and gay, what have you, that this is a good lesson for people to learn that you only matter because you have a responsibility to protect those who are different from you. We’re all interconnected. And I learned that lesson in a very unlikely place. But I’m grateful for it, nonetheless.

The Inspection movie

What have you been most surprised about since releasing this story out into the world?

All of it, all of it is a surprise. It took this movie about 5 years to get produced from the time that I wrote the first draft of it. And by that point, I was just happy that somebody wanted to make it. And then when it got towards the finish line, and I saw how excited A24 was about the film, that was a surprise to me, because I didn’t expect any of that to happen. I was prepared to make this movie, go wherever, whatever festival would take it, and then get on and make my next movie, and maybe it’d be like four or five movies before I got the type of attention this movie is getting. So that’s a surprise.

And then it was also a surprise in terms of my career where it’s helped me to land. And the fact of the matter is, as awkward as it is to say out loud, the film has been mentioned in the same breath as work by Steven Spielberg and Sarah Polley and Gina Prince-Bythewood.  Gina Prince-Bythewood is like one of my cinema heroes with Love and Basketball. [Watching that movie] was one of the few things I could do with my mom that we had peace with. So, the movie was a big part of my life. So, I’m surprised by a lot of it, and I’m grateful for it all.

But I think if there’s anything that’s most surprising [it] is that this movie is very much inspired by my life. It comes out of various forms of abuse and neglect that I suffered. And when I get a message on my Instagram from someone who’s seen the film, who’s telling me it’s their story. I’m surprised how many people say that. Like, I had this white, straight muscle-bound dude from Kansas write to me on Instagram: “Wow! That birth certificate scene was really special to me, because when I was seventeen, I was homeless, and me and my dad didn’t get along, and I had to join the Navy to fix my life. And I had to go home and get my birth certificate. No one’s ever really written a scene like that, that I can see myself [in] and you’re telling our story.” And I’m like, “Wow, this white, straight man, and I have the same story, you know?” That it’s not just the Black and the queer, but those who are outside of this experience are resonating with it.

How do you see this film speaking to this current moment we are in society, in contemporary culture?

These are very dangerous and heavy times in which we live. And we’re watching, even in my business, that the majority of people are more interested in spectacle and distraction than they are with grappling with these really massive issues that will define the future of our planet. So, what I hope over the years, as the film continues to live on in the world, is that it becomes a site of reconciliation and of possibility.

Everything I do is about sparking a conversation between the Right and the Left, because I don’t believe that there can be any progress unless both sides are really talking to one another. So, I hope that this is film is an example of that, and it helps people to reach out across their differences and try to understand one another and help one another rather than trying to, you know, hoard resources and privilege in order to maintain an inequality.

Elegance Bratton The Inspection film

Did you feel like you were in conversation with any previous film directors or movies? What were some of your inspirations in making this film, in writing this story?

Full Metal Jacket, Beau Travail, and Rocky. Those are three movies that really spoke to me. From Full Metal Jacket – I mean, it’s kind of clear – half of the movie takes place in boot camp, and the other half takes place at war. My movie takes place only in boot camp, because for me that was my war. I was not in a position at that time of my life to really have an opinion about the Iraq War, or any of that. My name is Elegance. Any room I’ve walked into, if they knew that I was coming, they assume that I was Black and gay before I ever got there.

And that assumption led to a lot of ostracization and rejection in my life. You know it wasn’t like I didn’t try to do dozens and dozens of different things, you know, different jobs. I probably [had] like 50, 60 jobs before I joined the Marine Corps, but nothing was connecting. I wasn’t able to – no one took me seriously. Because of how I’m named and my sexuality. A lot of times I’m kinda blocked from traditional male spaces. And those traditional male spaces is where men teach each other how to pass privilege to each other. And that’s not to say that that’s right or wrong, but the reality is I needed to learn this currency, I need to learn this language of masculinity. So yeah, so from Full Metal Jacket it’s about imagining that story with me in it – because it is my story, and I am in it.

And then from Beau Travail, I think the filmmaker Claire Denis very clearly thinks that the military men in that film are beautiful. And those men think that each other are beautiful on screen. And I think that I wanted to do something that was a step beyond homoeroticism, in that the tension of that film, I believe, is around the fact that you don’t know who’s who and what’s what, in terms of the sexuality of the characters. And then, The Inspection, it’s the inverse of that. It’s a queer person in a military space.

So then from Rocky, you know, it’s just one man’s fight against all odds to win the love of one woman. And for me that fight is, was for a long time, the love of my mother.

So those 3 films are the ones that really kind of inform The Inspection.

Do you consider this film a love story?

In part. You know, I loved boot camp. I had a great time at bootcamp, believe it or not, even though it was hard for me. I grew up kind of getting my ass kicked, anyway, so there wasn’t anything new with that. But the difference here is, I was learning how to protect myself and to defend myself as well. And this is a time of my life where you know, I was the fastest that I’ll ever be, the strongest that I’ll ever be, and it was cool because I’ve been told that I was weak because of who I am.

So, to discover that strength of myself through basic training, you know, that was a really empowering thing for me. So yeah, there is a love story. If anything, I think it’s more so a story of redemption, of the redemption of oneself, right? And I think self-love and self-esteem is kind of inherently redemptive because who hasn’t let themselves down? Who hasn’t been told by this world that you’re not enough?

So, if you can find a way to love yourself through that, you know you can be redeemed, and I hope that people watch this movie and walk out of it, you know, knowing that they are enough.

This film is striking in its sense of both honoring and yet critiquing important national institutions – such as the family, the military, religious faith, and notions of manhood. And yet, there’s this tension between the two: was that difficult to do in telling this story?

It was. It’s been difficult since we’ve released the story. Most of the critics have some sense, so they know the movie is good, but there’s a handful of fools that don’t know a good thing when they see it.

There are some very prominent people who think the movie is just plain propaganda. Like I’ve read things where they’re like, “This is a recruitment ad!” And so, to answer your question: Yes, I am wrestling with these things. I think every conscious American should be wrestling with these things.

But as a Black person, you’re born into wrestling with these things because you’re, again, you’re in a country that does not truly value your life in any meaningful way.

I exist in the Blind Spot – between a society that wants to wish racism away without doing any real systemic work to dismantle it. And a society that is squeamish, if not disgusted, by the idea of homosexual love and desire. And where does that leave you?

Of course, the movie is a total critique of the system. I mean literally they drown someone, and nobody does anything about it. So, as a Black person, you’re put in a position where you have to survive. And that survival means strange bedfellows. But then again, I grew up in a household that was already Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. So, to me, my abuse-complex was perfect for this environment. And all I could do was take advantage of it, you know, and to be honest.

Gabriel Union portrays your mother in the film. Were you worried how non Black-Americans may project her character’s homophobia onto Black women? Or even the Black community, at large?

Yes, I thought about that narrative, and at the end of the day, I understand the criticism. And you could even extend this question to the idea of the “trauma porn.” I understand a frustration and a fatigue in our communities of seeing bad Black mothers. But I don’t think the woman in this film is just a bad mom. My mother is the first person to ever love me, completely. She’s also the first person to ever reject me wholly. So, my truth is one of contradiction and complication. More than one thing can be true, at once. And that, depending on the situation, can be inherently traumatic. Yes, I think about the representation of Black women. But just because someone is homophobic doesn’t mean that’s all of who they are.

This is a woman who clearly worked hard her whole life to take care of her child as best as she could. And at a moment where she decided where she could not be good for this child, she kicked him out. And while that was emotionally painful for this character, I think, to a certain extent, she, Inez, makes a choice to push him away because she cannot love him properly. I’ve learned in my life that you can’t give somebody something that you haven’t been given. My mother never had unconditional love. He knows that he never had that. And when this movie was greenlit, three days later, my mother was killed.

And so, Gabriel Union is using my mother’s Bible, and she’s wearing my mother’s jewelry in this film. She really helped me to bring my mother back to life. So yeah, I’m aware of the implication, but I never said all Black people are homophobic: I said that my mother is homophobic, and I still love her, anyway.

And despite it all, you still labored to make her a full rounded person?

Yes, she has to be, because that’s the thing: all of us are inherently human, even the ones who do bad things.

You know, that’s interesting. Because as you know: there is a popular criticism online that a lot of Black, especially Black queer movies, seem to be overdetermined by excessive trauma and pain. Do you think that’s fair? Do you agree?

I’m of two minds. Because our experience in this hemisphere is one of trauma. You know we were kidnapped and brought here against our will. Stripped of our language, of our identity and brutalized, terrorized continuously to this very day. And I’m somewhat of two minds, that I think: Yes, there is a sorrowful tradition in Hollywood of exploiting Black pain. But there is also a sorrowful tradition of not letting us speak about our own pain.

Most of these films that are being critiqued are made by white people, and not made by Black people. That being said, my thing is, more of everything needs to be made. We need more of everything. We need more slavery movies, for sure. But we also need Black Sci-fi stories. We need Black horror stories, and we need Black Joy as well.

So the antidote is diversity in film representation?

Exactly, bring them all in. Let’s make a bigger tent. Let’s make it possible for every Black story to be told. But at the same time, we need to show up for those stories too.

Do you think this story would’ve have resonated so powerfully if the protagonist was a non-Black character? Given society’s expectations of Black male identity and Black masculinity?

Honestly, I ask myself this question all the time with Black independent cinema. What if a white person made this movie about a Black gay man? What kind of a critical response would it receive? What if the Black, gay character was white? In my true honest opinion: I believe if this character was white, it’d be a bigger film. I feel like more people would put their money down to watch it and support it out the gate. Because again we are invested. We are taught. We’ve been trained by this medium to see white people first.  So, I think if he was white, I think it would have that resonated even more.

I wasn’t expecting that answer. Let me ask you that differently: if Ellis had been depicted as both gay and masculine – in the conventional sense of what a Black man should be – would his situation in the Marines have been different?

I think the whole point of this movie is to break down what masculinity is, and to suggest that forgiveness is a cornerstone of true masculinity. So, in that regard, I really don’t know the answer to that question. But what I do know is that when you say Black men are supposed to be masculine, what does that mean? Silent. You’re supposed to endure pain without crying. You’re supposed to be impenetrable. And I think that that is toxic, and that is not true.

I don’t think people ask the same questions when it’s white people playing these parts. But make no a mistake about it: any notion of Black masculinity is a mirror of what white America is and what white masculinity is. We watched the people who enslaved us wield power, and then we emulate what we think power comes from.

I don’t think we are the arbiters of what our masculinity is. I think we are mirroring what we’ve been taught to be, and my job as an artist is to put a mirror to the society, and say, is this really you? Is this really what you want to be? Is this really what you believe in? And that makes people uncomfortable.

What message do you want to leave your viewers?  

I made this movie as proof that good things are possible. Even when you’re in the lowest position: anything is possible. That you have it within you to change the world around you.

The Inspection is out in UK cinemas on 17th February.

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