Words & Interview

Josh Slater-Williams


Elegance Bratton: ‘Growing up, I never saw any Black queer heroes in movies’

The director of The Inspection reflects on the experience of translating his time as a closeted marine into an affecting drama.

Produced by A24, The Inspection is the fiction feature debut of writer-director Elegance Bratton, who previously earned acclaim for Pier Kids, a documentary on young queer and trans New Yorkers coping with homelessness. A fictionalised depiction of Bratton’s own experiences, The Inspection is set in 2005, and follows Ellis French (Jeremy Pope), a young Black man who’s been living on the streets for roughly a decade, after being kicked out of his New Jersey home in his teens for being gay. With few options for his future, and partly in an attempt to reconnect with his homophobic mother (played by Gabrielle Union), he decides to join the Marines amidst the peak of the US military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” era, which prohibited serving LGBTQ+ individuals from disclosing their sexuality from 1994 until 2011.

Bratton got his own pre-college filmmaking start in the marines, thanks to an eventual videographer role, though The Inspection – a recent Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Award nominee – largely sticks to his onscreen surrogate’s time navigating a tough South Carolina boot camp.

LWLies: How have you found the transition from documentaries and shorts to fiction features?

It’s been a real eye-opening experience. First of all, I don’t see a difference between documentary and fiction filmmaking. They’re two divergent processes to end up with the same goal, which is a movie. Particularly in my film, which is autobiographical yet at the same time fictionalised, right there I’m in this nebulous area between what’s real and what’s imagined. I think all of us deal in that area.

But then once you’re in the industry, it’s a huge difference. I think a lot of the time when we talk about questions of diversity, and people are like, “Well, why are movies like this? And why isn’t my filmmaker over there like that?” It’s because it’s an industry of precedent. I didn’t realise how different my work and image as a director would be received after a fiction film. I thought I knew what I was walking into after Pier Kids. I made that for duct tape and five bucks. So, this is really eye-opening. I go to the [Golden] Globes now, and Angela Bassett knows my name. It’s just very different.

Documentarians are like monks. You make movies for nothing; about things most people don’t really want to know about. You’re in this little collective of people who do things for no money. And then you get to the Hollywood side: everybody’s rich, impossibly beautiful, so poised. It’s very different, but very fun.

Was Angela Bassett your most exciting encounter at the Golden Globes?

I’m a weirdo. Certain people just do it for me. Like Jennifer Coolidge. I met her the week before actually, shopping in L.A. We were at the same store and she was giving Inspector Gadget realness: big fedora, huge mask, collared jacket. Of course, I saw her and was like, “That’s Jennifer Coolidge!” When I was at the Globes and I introduced myself again, she was like, “Oh, yeah, you’re the guy who bought the jewelry.” That was pretty starstruck. And later, I was talking to my agent and Rihanna walked up behind me to introduce herself to me and my husband. She was so sweet and A$AP [Rocky] looked so handsome. Tilda Swinton returns my texts. And Jamie Lee Curtis loved my outfit. She looked me up and down and she went, “Yes.”

Why this autobiographical story for your fiction debut?

The first draft was written in 2017, right after I sold my show, My House, to Viceland. I finally had a bit of money in the account and realised I would never not need a real job for six months ever again, so I’d better write a script. I wrote three and The Inspection was one. I then went to my husband, producer of this film, Chester Algernal Gordon. To him, my biggest strength as a storyteller is bringing the audience to places they could never go without me. I needed to do something personal that would really introduce who I am as an artist and human being, so that, hopefully, I can build an audience relationship.

I came to the Marine Corps at the lowest moment in my life, after being homeless for 10 years. I felt my life really had no meaning, value or purpose. And then I was fortunate enough to have a drill instructor remind me that my life was valuable because I had a responsibility to protect the person to my left and to my right. In these polarised times, I felt it was important to share that message that you don’t have to agree about everything. And that, honestly, it’s the dynamic interpersonal relationships between people that change things, not institutions. It’s grassroots up, not top down. That’s what I learned in the Marine Corps and I was hoping people could watch this movie and get a piece of that.

There are moments in the film where we take the view of other Marine recruits objecting to their own treatment. Were those additional perspectives based on people you knew directly?

The War on Terror era is essentially, for me, the [defining] moment of Islamophobia in my country. I’m from New Jersey, and the town I was staying in at the time is very much a Middle Eastern town. And after 9/11 happened, literally every storefront had an American flag on it, because they didn’t want non-Middle Eastern Americans to attack them. Fast forward: I’m in bootcamp, there’s Islamic recruits there and they’re being called the Taliban. They’re being called Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. They’re being abused in front of my face, ridiculed and broken down. And in bootcamp, you don’t really get a chance to speak up for yourself, let alone other people.

Those stories stayed with me. Each of these characters is a composite of people who made an impact on me; who I felt I had something in common with. When French goes to the Marine Corps, he goes in thinking he’s the weakest person because he’s gay, that his effeminacy is going to somehow render him useless to the mission. And then he discovers that every man in bootcamp is given an impossible proposition, which is to be the perfect marine, to be a real man. And then, he uses what I like to call strategic kindness: radical defiant empathy in order to find that common ground.

But mind you, that empathy is what he’s learned from his queer life. So, it’s really understanding that difference is [itself] different and maybe the way you get there, whether it’s through your race or sexuality, is specific to you. But at the end of the day, those of us who are different have more in common than those of us who are ‘normal’.

Why Jeremy Pope to play ‘you’?

For me, it was really important that the character that’s based on me be an out Black actor. I’m not one of those people who says you have to be the thing to play the thing all the time. But growing up, I never saw any Black queer heroes in movies. Most of the time, if they’re actually out and gay, they’re an accessory to the lead character and whatever they’re going through. And as a Black gay man, I needed that representation.

Jeremy and I would talk often about what it would’ve meant to us to have this film as teenagers. I wanted to shrink a bit of the work for future audiences. As a Black gay man, I’m a cobbled together identity of RuPaul-isms, voguing, Karl Lagerfeld and random bits of gay stuff that I see in the world that resonates with me. I take it on and it becomes me. We wanted to make a movie where people don’t have to do that. They can just press play, see themselves as the hero and be inspired.

Could you also speak on casting Gabrielle Union as your mother?

My mom was killed about three days after the movie was greenlit. It changed the whole tone of everything we were doing on set. I’m really grateful to Gabrielle Union for helping to bring my mother back to life. When it comes down to it, my mother was a really beautiful woman. She was a smart woman, and she was a tough woman. She was an orphan at age 10. I needed someone who had that quality of strength and beauty, but also who could contain the contradictions of a woman.

My mom was the first person to ever love me completely. She’s also the first person to ever reject me wholly. Gabrielle was able to make herself into a vessel and allow me to talk about all of this.

Why ‘The Inspection’ for the film’s title?

I’m a big feminist reader and trying to be the best feminist I can, as a man. Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, says that one is not born a woman, that one becomes a woman. And I think the same thing is true for men, that we’re not born men. We learn how to be men. And how we test the limits of that knowledge, of gaining that mastery of masculinity in the Marine Corps is through the inspection.

Whenever you’re in the presence of someone in a higher rank than you, there’s an inspection going on. That person above you is supposed to look at you and determine if you’re up to military standard. Now granted, once we’re in the fleet, actually in service, most people are not making demerits. But if you do anything that varies too much out of the mold of how we’re supposed to be, then somebody’s going to reprimand you for that and try to get you back into the mold. So, ‘The Inspection’, to me, is a metaphor for the ways in which masculinity is constructed, interrogated and, hopefully, dismantled.

How did you settle on the name, Ellis French, that you gave your onscreen surrogate?

I’ve been a Francophile since I was seven or eight. For one of my first big projects in what I think you call primary school, we had to pick a country and for a week tell the whole class about it. France was mine, so I brought in baguettes. We couldn’t drink red wine, so I brought in Kool-Aid. And Ellis is my nickname at home, so ‘Ellis French’. It was also my old Grindr name… no, I’m just kidding.

Published 14 Feb 2023

Tags: Elegance Bratton The Inspection

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