From homelessness to Hollywood: How director Elegance Bratton made The Inspection

Bratton learned filmmaking as a gay Black man in the Marines. Then he made a movie about it.

Lais Borges/Mic; A24 Films
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When I first saw the trailer for The Inspection, a new film about a Black, gay man joining the Marine corps in the age of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, I let out an excitable, “No freaking way!” I was there several years ago, when the film’s creator, Elegance Bratton, first decided to turn his pitch into a professional screenplay. Bratton and I met in 2016 while studying at NYU – I as a clueless college freshman, he as a graduate student pursuing his MFA in directing — and partaking in the university’s Development Studio fellowship. With guidance from award-winning writers like Terrence Winter (The Sopranos) and Tony Gilroy (Jason Bourne), we spent the better part of a year workshopping our juvenile one-page summaries into feature-length scripts, offering constructive criticism on each other’s drafts.

While the red carpet remained a distant dream for me, I never once doubted Bratton would make it. Six years later, he has, with that very script. Of course, changes were made over the years, but the basic outline of The Inspection — which premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival in September and debuted in U.S. theaters on November 18 — was there from the very beginning. After all, the film is based on Bratton’s own experiences.

Like his on-screen counterpart, the kind and courageous Ellis French, Bratton was kicked out of his mother’s home as a teenager, and like Ellis, he spent several years in and out of homeless shelters before joining the Marine corps, where he was eventually introduced to the art of filmmaking. The Inspection, Bratton tells me over Zoom, helped him make sense of his complicated past: one in which love, hate, grief, and joy all coexisted without contradiction.

While at Marine corps bootcamp, a place where homophobia went hand-in-hand with homoerotic energy, Bratton was forced to hide his identity. At the same time, the Marines became the home he never had and ultimately led him to where he is today. Equally complex is the relationship with his late mother — played by Gabrielle Union in the film — which Bratton recalls in heart-wrenching detail in the interview below.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Elegance, if it’s not too personal, can you tell me how you became homeless?

I was thrown out of the house when I was 16 years old. I was cornered about not having a girlfriend and about whether I would get a girlfriend or not — something that had been happening since I was 13. I was pushed out the door with my bags in my hands.

I went to the train station, and I saw these three Black gay men just having a good time. I followed them to a pier, and I spent three nights out there. I got my first kiss there. I held hands with a boy there. Most importantly, I met a community of people who were just like me: Black gay kids who’d been kicked out of their houses. I felt like I was at home.

Eventually, though, I ran out of the little bit of money I had, and I didn’t have anything left to sell. So, I went back home and professed to be straight. Six months later I couldn’t prove I was straight, and I got kicked out again. By the time I was 19, I decided I would just stay outside. It had felt like I was homeless already. My mother’s place was just the first place that was not my place.

I thought, “I join the military, I die young, I'm a hero. I don't join the military, I die young, I'm an unimportant statistic.” - Elegance Bratton

Why did you decide to join the Marines?

I stayed homeless for the next 10 years. I lived in a homeless shelter. I asked my mom if I could come back home, and she asked me if I was still gay. I said yes and she said, “Why don’t you join the military?” That hurt. I thought she was saying, “Go get blown up.”

Back at the shelter, I saw Black men who had been homeless for much longer than I had. I asked myself: Is this it? Is this my future? Is this what I’m going to do for the rest of my life? The next morning, I was approached by a Marine corps recruiter.

He asked me if I wanted to be a marine. I thought, “I join the military, I die young, I'm a hero. I don't join the military, I die young, I'm an unimportant statistic.” I said, “If I’ll look as good in a uniform as you do, sign me up!”

In The Inspection, Ellis becomes an army filmmaker after finishing bootcamp. The same happened to you, right?

The recruiter had me take a test, and I scored high. He showed me the top three jobs in the Marine corps. First, intelligence. I’m not a snitch, so I couldn’t do that. Second, journalist. I am way too opinionated, so I couldn’t do that either.

Third job, filmmaker. It looked cool. I saw pictures of guys hanging upside down [from] helicopters with a telephoto lens. Back when I was homeless, I sold art books. I read Scorsese, Spike Lee, Kubrick – all these different director’s books. I already had an inkling of a thought of what that would be like if that was me, so I said yes. That’s how I became a filmmaker.

I made actualities, documentaries, and also retirement videos. Once when I was a private, I got called up to the general’s office. Privates are like dirt; generals are the sky. Turns out he wrote a retirement script and wanted me to read it.

The first time I ever held a camera, recorded, [and] edited, was with the Marines. Really, the outlet that I used to make sense of the relationship with my mother was introduced to me there.

Elegance Bratton’s Marine corps portrait

A24 / Elegance Bratton

The Inspection is dedicated to your mother. What was your relationship with her like?

My mother passed about three days after the movie was greenlit. I am grateful to Gabrielle Union for bringing my mother back to life for me, so I could have the closure that my mother and I could not. We did not speak at the time of her death. We had not spoken for about 18 years, maybe more. She was a complicated woman.

She was the first person to love me completely and also the first person to reject me completely. I've come to learn that you cannot give someone something you haven't been given. Nobody had ever given my mother the unconditional love that I needed from her.

Did Jeremy Pope, the actor who plays Ellis French, teach you anything about the character that you didn’t know while writing the script?

Jeremy is a phenomenally gifted and disciplined performer. Movie scenes are filmed out of order. Often, Jeremy would ask, “Where is French at right now?” I’d never worked with an actor who’s tracking their character with all of their training in mind. That process revealed all sorts of things about Ellis French that I did not know.

I didn’t know that Ellis French was this playful until Jeremy inhabited him. I did not know that he had confidence and self-denial. Especially in the draft that we collaborated on back in the Development Studio, there was nothing but self-denial. I didn’t understand how the confidence he had in himself would make me root for him, how that polarity was essential to his character.

In the movie, we see what boot camp was like for Ellis. What was it like for you?

When I joined the Marines, I felt worthless. I felt I had no purpose in life. I was fortunate enough to have a drill instructor who reminded me my life did have meaning, because I had this responsibility to protect those around me. In the Marine corps, we're taught to protect the person to our left and to our right. No man left behind. That level of trust was transformational for me.

Transformational how?

My name is Elegance. Every room I've walked into, everyone has assumed I'm gay before I even say anything. That assumption has led to all sorts of exclusion, ostracization, and rejection, at least in my youth. When I joined the Marine corps, I found a team of men — straight men, ostensibly – who couldn't reject me. I received an education in manhood and in masculinity that I had been denied my whole life. Of course, I also had to face the consequence of not having had that education previously.

I wanted to make a film that presents a masculinity which sees forgiveness as strength, not weakness. Forgiveness being a source of strength for men versus a sign of fear or inability to resolve conflict violently. To forgive and transform the whole world around you.

I wanted to make a film that presents a masculinity which sees forgiveness as strength, not weakness. - Elegance Bratton

Are there any particular incidents during your training that stuck with you and inspired you to make The Inspection?

When you take showers in the Marine corps, you're naked and your drill instructors have clothes on. I had experiences with men in this type of setting, with these types of power dynamics. And it was totally sexual. There was this one drill instructor, a new guy who came in toward the end of my training. He made that gay, cruising eye contact with me in the shower.

He was cute, and that was dangerous. I looked away and thought of my mother's armpits — anything I could think of not to get an erection. He comes over to me and starts screaming at me. It's hard to describe the tone of his voice. If you were straight, you'd just assume he was being a drill instructor. But if you were queer, you'd think he was flirting with you.

In the film, things work out differently. Ellis gets an erection. His fellow recruits notice, and they beat him up in the shower.

French is a more heroic version of me. He's someone who cannot stop himself from being himself. I, on the other hand, have had to subdue myself many times in order to survive. It's now a part of my personality.

So, some parts of the film aren’t necessarily based on real-life experiences.

The movie is 100% autobiographical when it comes to hopes, fears, and desires – but rearranged and redesigned to convey what is most important to me: emotional truth. Yes, it's autobiographical, but it's not simply a recollection of what happened.

What was the most difficult scene to film, emotionally?

The opening scene, when Ellis goes to get his birth certificate from his mother at her apartment. That particular home, I had not been to since I was a teenager. I wasn’t allowed back in, and I wanted to get back in so bad for so many years.

I did not really consider what it would be like to be on set in a recreation of that home. I’m a spiritual person and I do believe in God. At the shelter I said a prayer for this moment, and I had no idea that God had said yes until I had reconstructed the place I had been banned from. It was empowering, but sad for me too.

The movie ends when Ellis is about to start his army career. Why did you ultimately decide to leave the military?

At first, I was stationed in Hawaii, and I loved it. You could ride your bike down a hill and dive into a postcard and go snorkeling with dolphins. At the same time, it was Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and I really started to get affected by the loneliness I had to stomach.

For instance, when you get promoted in the Marines, typically your partner comes, and they pin you up. I couldn’t have anybody do that for me when I got promoted. I had to have my sergeant do that for me. Of course, everyone knew why. But if I were to bring someone I cared about to the ceremony, the whole system would have turned on me and I would be back in the shelter. At least, that’s how I saw it.

How do you look back on this period of your life?

I loved being a Marine and am proud of it. It’s the good and the bad, just as the movie suggests that two things can be true at once. I’m a pro-troop person. I’m on the side of people who are in desperate situations because I know what that’s like.

Are you working on any new projects now?

I’m making a documentary called Hellfighter, about James Reese Europe. He was an army veteran and a musician. He was the first Black man to conduct at Carnegie Hall, and the first Black man to fight in uniform in a world war — World War I — as army officer and band leader. His band, Hellfighters, brought Black American music to France for the first time.

The documentary will be a contemplation of what it took for that first generation after slavery to build a life for themselves, as well as a retelling of this man’s remarkable life. I’m hoping to resuscitate him as an early civil rights icon.