Award-winning and boundary-breaking director, writer and producer Elegance Bratton began making films as a US Marine after spending a decade homeless and aspires to capture stories untold with an intention to show the universal power of our shared humanity. His deeply moving film The Inspection is inspired by his own story, a young, gay Black man, rejected by his mother and with few options for his future, decides to join the Marines, doing whatever it takes to succeed in a system that would cast him aside.
Bratton’s life has indeed been a catalyst for his storytelling and broader success. In addition to his documentary Pier Kids, which explores the lives of Black queer and trans young people who call Manhattan’s Christopher Street Pier their home, won a Film Independent Spirit Award, he created and executive produced the 2018 Viceland ballroom docuseries My House, he also produced and/or directed at least ten short films—most about aspects of Black queer and trans life. With The Inspection, which marks his narrative feature debut, the personal continues to inspire.
The Inspection is completely authentic when it comes to the desires, fears and, ultimately, the primary goal of the main character”—while the surrounding narratives are inspired by circumstances he witnessed when in training almost 20 years ago.
Bratton went to training in the middle of the U.S. military’s ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era, during which LGBTQ+ people were banned from serving openly without threat of being discharged. But the military “gave me a purpose in life,” Bratton says; it was in the Marines, in his mid-20s, where he also picked up a camera for the first time, eventually becoming a combat filmmaker. This was all before he went to college, he holds a BS from Columbia University (2014) and MFA from NYU Tisch Graduate Film (2019).
The Inspection follows Ellis French (Jeremy Pope), a young Black queer man, as he joins the Marine Corps in the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” hoping to reconnect with his estranged mother (Gabrielle Union) and prove he’s every bit the man she once hoped he’d become. He battles deep-seated prejudice and the grueling routines of basic training, finding unexpected camaraderie, strength, and support in this new community, giving him a hard-earned sense of belonging that will shape his identity and forever change his life.
Though at the core of The Inspection is Bratton’s queer veteran’s experience, its story resonates well beyond that community.
“When I look at what’s happening with Black queer men in the world, and especially in the United States—we’re still navigating the impact of HIV/AIDS on our community, we’re something like eight times more likely to commit suicide, more likely to deal with poverty, all this kind of stuff—I just think there’s a lot of young Black queer brothers out there who need to know that it’s true, you’re meant to do great things. It’s just a matter of listening to your spirit and trusting that you’re meant to do great things,” he says.
“The Inspection is proof to anybody who has been where I have been—any version of where I’ve been—that the feeling you have within yourself that you’re meant for more is true. And the world will tell you that you’re not, even though you know that you are.”
Bratton made The Inspection first and foremost to “heal myself from things I had been through. And I think the one thing that was most damaging to me is the idea that somehow by being gay and Black, I was basically a social pariah. The world had nothing to gain from me, so, therefore, I didn’t matter; I didn’t exist. Then I joined the Marines and learned that I’m important because of my ability to protect the person to my left and right. And I felt like that lesson—that you’re only as important as your ability to protect others—was really restorative for me. It gave me a purpose in life. And I feel right now, politically speaking, the world is polarizing rapidly.
Bratton felt the lesson that he learned was an important one to share with people: you matter because you’re in a community with other people.
“You owe it to yourself to love yourself, so you can be there for them. In the Republican-Democratic stalemate that we appear to be stuck in, this is an important lesson to put out in the world, an important message to share. But ultimately, sharing that helps me to accept that I’ve actually learned it, and I’ve healed from that moment in my life where I felt like I was invisible and didn’t matter.”
From the moment Bratton had the idea for The Inspection, he regarded it as a pro-troop film, not a pro-military film.
“When you’re in the Marine Corps, you’re taught that your body becomes government property. It’s not yours until you go back to the civilian world. That’s something very familiar to me in my upbringing—and I didn’t know that these straight white boys from Mississippi and Ohio who listen to country music had
dilemmas like I had until we all ended up in boot camp and signed up to go off to war.”
The Inspection is a fictionalized representation of real-life situations
The Inspection is completely authentic when it comes to the desires, fears, and, ultimately, the primary goal of the character.
“Particularly in those scenes between French and Inez, his mother, a lot of that is literally just ripped out of my life. In terms of the stuff that’s happening at boot camp, it’s a combination of things. I’m also very connected to queer history, and I listen to a lot of podcasts about queer veterans.”
“I am very lucky to be able to share my story with this film. Others who are going through similar struggles can take comfort and inspiration from seeing you tell your story. I know there are many others who have gone through similar hardships and who don’t get to tell their stories. It’s a completely personal film, but it’s one I hope can change hearts and minds for both military leadership and for anyone going through any kind of relatable experience. The most powerful tool I have is my ability to tell this story and for others to experience my truth.”
The film was a healing exercise for Bratton.
“It was difficult just believing that anybody would really care about my story. I’ve been through so much
trauma in my life, and even though I think I’ve done a pretty good job of coping with it and rebuilding from that wreckage, it’s hard not to internalize it in some way as it being from you, and because of you. This whole process was really hard because I didn’t know how deeply embedded this feeling in me was that a lot of this was my fault.”
Being nervous or hesitant about putting so much of your own personal story, and your family’s personal story, on the screen?
“It’s a constant battle with internalized shame and mental health. It’s not easy for me to be here right now, and it was hard because I don’t want people to hate my mom. I don’t hate my mom, and she did it to me. So if I don’t hate her, you can’t hate her. I don’t want that to happen. I’m not representing all Black
women. I’m not representing the military. I’m representing my experience, and when I look at it that way, I’m really proud.”