Interview: Filmmaker Elegance Bratton on Unconditional Love, Human Connection and Drawing from His Own Life for The Inspection

Much like his first film, the documentary Pier Kids, writer/director Elegance Bratton’s debut narrative film, The Inspection, is drawn very specifically from his real life, which included being a young, gay, Black man kicked out of his home by his devout mother (played in the film by Gabrielle Union), finding himself homeless for many years, and joining the Marines as a means to find and discipline himself and perhaps make his mother proud in the process (“At least if I die in this uniform, I’m a hero,” his stand-in Ellis French says in one scene). French is played by the phenomenal Jeremy Pope, and though he endures prejudice and the grueling routines of basic training, he emerges stronger, more sure of who he is, and fully committed to repairing the damaged relationship he has with his mother, no matter what.

The shaping of French comes from the push-and-pull leadership of his commanding officers: a drill sergeant named Laws (a terrifying and surprisingly complex man played by Bokeem Woodbine) and Rosales (Raúl Castillo), who is more tolerant than most in the Marines, perhaps because he identifies with French more than most. The Inspection is a tough watch at times, but it becomes an inspirational and deeply moving telling of this very personal story of taking the hardest road imaginable just to feel like you belong. I spoke recently with Bratton when he was in town for a Black Harvest Film Festival screening of the movie. Please enjoy our conversation…

When we meet French, his life is a mess, and the reasons he gives his mother for going into the military are legit. From your perspective, since it’s based on your own experience, why did you think the military was the answer?

Well that’s the beauty of film. I didn’t necessarily think it was at first. At 25 years old, after 10 years on the street, I found myself in a homeless shelter, and I called my mom up and asked her…well part of your answer is, I thought I’d hit rock bottom. But I called her up and asked if I could come back home, and she was like “Are you still gay?” And I’m like, “Yes, I am.” And she said, “Well, you can’t be gay in my house, but maybe you should join the military.” She’d suggested this to me, I think when I was a junior in high school. That’s when I was in and out of the house. But she said it to me, I went back to the shelter, and I was incensed at first. It was 2005, and it felt like she was saying “Go get blown up by a bomb. I’d rather you’d be blown to bits than be gay in my house,” and that hurt a lot. Then I went back to the shelter to sleep and I see all of these older men there, who have been homeless for decades, many of them, if not most, being Black men. I had to ask myself, “Is this really my future?” My spirit said No. 

The next morning, I was approached by a Marine recruiter, who was scouring shelters, jails, everywhere to get men. And he said, “Have you ever thought about being a Marine?” And I thought if I could look half as good as him in that uniform, please sign me up. He was the one, after I took my placement exam, I scored very high, and he said, “You’re a Black man, you’re clearly in a tough situation, most recruiters would make you a mechanic or a cook. I’m going to underline what I think are the top three jobs, and I do not want you to look below this line.” And the first job was intelligence, and I am not a snitch [laughs]. I couldn’t do it. The second job was journalism; I’m too biased to be a good journalist. And the last job was being a combat filmmaker, and there was this cool image of this guy hanging upside-down from a helicopter with this lens. Suffice it to say, when I was homeless, one of my hustles to make money was to steal art books, because they have a very high cover value. So I had read Spike Lee’s different biographies from different films, I read Almodovar’s books, I read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. So when he asked, “Have you ever thought about being a filmmaker?”, I said yes because I’d read those books. And that’s how the military came about; it was actually my mother’s idea.

Perhaps naively, this character also thinks he needs discipline in his life to snap out of his downward spiral. Did you really believe that would happen too?

Yeah yeah. That was definitely part of the reason I chose the Marines over the Army or other things. We grew up without a lot of money, so my mother was like “If you’re going to spend money on education, you’re going to get the best education. If you’re going to spend money on sneakers, you’re going to get the best sneakers, because you only have one chance to spend it, so you better spend it right.” So the Marine Corps seemed like the most tough and together. I didn’t have a dad growing up, and I needed that discipline, I needed that parental patriarchal figure in my life to care about me. When I joined, I felt worthless, useless, like a bump on a log, and then I had a drill instructor tell me in bootcamp “Your life has meaning and value because you have a responsibility to protect the person to your left and your right.” That was a really galvanizing thought, and it really transformed my life, and I ran with it, all the way to right here, to this interview. It was one of those things where I needed to get someone to do a 180 and not be the same to succeed.

Not a lot of things give you a sense of value like having someone else put their trust in you.

Yes, exactly.

My concern while watching this movie was that going through this bootcamp process was going to erase the person that you were. Instead, it validates you and the person you are. Again, was that your experience, and were you also worried about losing yourself?

My sense of self, I’ve never worried about that [laughs]. I mean, my name is Elegance. Any room I walk into, 99.9 percent of the people in it assume I’m gay, and 100 percent of those people were correct [laughs]. There’s only so much brainwashing that can be done when you’re coming from a space of such extreme and obviously individuality. No one will ever not let me be Elegance because the unusualness of the name is a starting point. What I was afraid of was the violence. The movie is 100 percent autobiographic when it comes to the hopes, fears, and desires of the lead character. Even if the situation was something I’d personally been though, like those moments of sexual anxiety, all of that’s real.

One of the things that truly rattled me in the film was Bokeem Woodbine’s character confessing that he’s not necessarily trying to get rid of French because he’s gay. But if he’s going to go through this process, he’s going to be the meanest of the bunch. Did someone tell you that at some point, or is that just how you felt you were being treated?

That’s just how I felt. I didn’t have someone say that to me explicitly, but I guess what they did say a lot is that there are no rules in war. Yes, there’s the Geneva Convention and all of these treaties, but once you get on the battlefield and the enemy gets you, they might do anything to you. I grew up with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in my household and getting my ass kicked, and the mentality in my household came from my mother being a prison guard. Scared Straight, that was like my Disney World, I would go so often. So the idea was “I’m going to be tough to you in this house, and that way when you go out into the world as a Black man, you know what the boundaries are and you won’t get hurt.”

Did coming out of documentaries and combat photography inform the way you shot The Inspection? Since you’re telling a true story, could you shoot it like a doc?

I kind of have cinematic dyslexia, in that I truly don’t see a difference between documentary and fiction film. I see them as different roads to the same end result, in that you have a film in the end. But also, yes, it’s based on my story, but there isn’t a lot of coverage of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era, which stretched almost 80 years, so from a filmmaking point of view, we really wanted to create a specific visual language, and to do that, from French’s point of view, it’s just a handheld, European arthouse-style, Claire Denis type of film. When we see French in the world, it’s like a military action film; it’s Jarhead, Full Metal Jacket, and the idea is to suggest that the queer troop is still on shaky ground. That is one element, that visual statement about what it’s like to serve queer in uniform.

The other thing is that, I was a photographer first. I had this incredible teacher, Tom Roma, at Columbia University, who was my photo teacher, and he used to say that every photo we put on the walls for evaluation needs to be a 1000-word essay. We should be able to read what’s in the frame to understand the story that’s being told and what you mean to say with that story that is being told. In that sense, I’m a mise-en-scène freak. I want the audience to read the frame, put things together. That’s how this whole things came together. People like William Eggleston’s Cloud book was a really big influence on me; Chester [Algernal Gordon, producer], my creative partner, brought that to me, because we’re in this static location and it’s tough to tell the passage of time, which is intentional, but we still have to do it because it’s a movie. So using Eggleston’s approach to showing clouds, I was able to use the environment as an addendum to the action and get more of their interior lives out through the terrain. I’m trying to sound smart, but I would literally go to [cinematographer] Lachlan Milne, and he’d say “What are we going to do, mate?” because he’s Australian, and I’d be like “I don’t know, dude. Just point it at the tree like Terrence Malick.” [laughs] “Put it on your shoulder and run after them; I’m doing something over here.”

Image courtesy of A24

Well just because it’s more visually oriented doesn’t mean it’s not also smart. And that explains why so many of your lead actors are so damn photogenic. Back to Bokeem for a minute. The man is a legend. What do you learn from working with someone who’s such a veteran like he is?

I love this question. First of all, Bokeem doesn’t play the celebrity game the way others play it, so the public doesn’t really know him. This man is a gentleman, like in that Sidney Poitier, Paul Robeson, drinks his triple-malt scotch, his jacket cost more than most days we were shooting. He’s a real refined gentleman, and he’s a great mentor and role model. When he got the script, he committed to it immediately, which gave me a ton of confidence in my writing. He’s game for anything. 

Dovetailing back to your other question, one of the things I brought from documentary film work is the idea of the unexpected, and I intentionally would pick an actor every day on set and say “You know what I wrote? We aren’t going to do that; we’re going to do this.” And I wouldn’t tell anybody else that I was doing that. I could get the real reaction. And Bokeem was somebody that I kept doing that with because he was so good at it. So I would go into his trailer and say, “Okay, I think this scene should be a prayer to the Marines instead of what I initially wrote.” And we would workshop it together, and when it came time to shoot, Gabrielle Union, Jeremy, because he’s a professional theater actor, they were all great at it. But Bokeem would go “Come here, man. I’ve done this a lot. Let me tell you on what’s going on.” And he would take me under his wing and say “This is my experience in a situation like this before. Does any of this information help you?” And it did. He was a real light, a guy, a friend, a hero. I’ve always been a fan. When I was 14, I had the biggest crush on him [laughs]. It was cool to have him in the movie, for sure.

Conversely, Raul, whose profile has been growing quickly over the last couple of years, that might be the toughest role in the film because there are so many questions about him, but we do know he’s supportive. That’s such as delicate balance. What were you looking for in that character in French’s life?

I wanted Marlon Brando, but he’s no longer with us [laughs]. I think Raul has a lot of the qualities that Marlon Brando had. Rosales has to be austere and duty bound, but also if there’s anything he’s attracted to, it’s the possibility of nurturing. But as a Latin man—and I don’t want to speak for Latin men—Raul and I spoke a lot about machismo and how Rosales didn’t have a language for nurturing. He has a desire to do it, but he doesn’t have a place in the world to get the words for what that is. He doesn’t even know that’s in him until French arrives and meets him. So I needed someone who was stoically sensitive, someone who can listen and not reveal a shred of emotion, but has a flicker of that sense of controlling it. Raul has that in spades. Another stark difference between my documentary work and my fiction work is that in most of my early films, I didn’t work with professional actor. Well, I had them in my work, but the stars were non-actors.

Raul being a theater actor first—and Jeremy as well—there’s a discipline and acuity to performance that is so different from what I’ve ever work with before. So with Raul, it was great that we could build up these emotional beats, get to a really great place, and I could say “Now that we’re here, let’s add this quarter turn here, this little switch in another direction.” And I think the theatrical training of being on your feet with two or three performances a day delivering that emotion really helps Raul to be able to get it and then give little tweaks that takes it from something he’s been told to do to something that is completely is own. That’s what I’m doing as a director: setting it up so that I can get out of the way of everything and let it happen.

Ultimately, the film is about that very difficult search for human connection, and not just for French. That is such a tough thing to find cinematically, but Jeremy has such an expressive face, and times we’re seeing a combination of lust and desperation in him. Talk about those themes a bit.

The first thing is, in the Marines, my drill instructors always told us there’s no such things as Black Marines and white Marines. The premise of the Marines is human connection. If I really understand that my life is in your hands, I can’t allow a disagreement to progress to the point where we’re no longer talking. We have to always be in communication, so that sense of human connection is implicit in being a Marine, even outside of the Marines. When you’re in a combat zone and you’re trying to go from warring into peace, we’re taught how to form human connections first, and some people may have opinions on that. But our motto is “Hearts and Minds” not “Bombs and Guns.” You don’t get the hearts and minds with human connection. That is why the Marine Corps is the ideal location for a movie like this and what makes Jeremy the ideal person for this. I call it the Cate Blanchett Test. Can you sit on camera without another performer and emote and have us know what just happened and have a sense of what’s to come? I think Jeremy has that ability in his face to do that, where he doesn’t necessarily have to be playing off of someone else. 

When it comes to that link between desperation and attraction, this is where this character is coming from. when I was at that point in my life after being homeless, my only idea of love was transactional. I had no concept of unconditional love, so when someone did something kind for me, that meant they were attracted to me, and if they were attracted to me, that meant I either have sex with them or I don’t. That’s the kind of limited space that Ellis French walks into the Marine Corps with, and just like me, I was fortunate enough to have a straight guy from a very different background than me say, “I’m not doing this because I want something from you. I’m doing this because you’re you and you need me.” That’s what French is learning. It’s not rocket science; it’s gay Black Rocky [laughs].

Best of luck with this. It was really great meeting you.

Good to meet you. This was fun, I liked that. Thanks.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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