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Marine-turned-movie director Elegance Bratton on making ‘The Inspection’

‘We are walking contradictions,’ says the filmmaker, whose autobiographical drama follows a young gay man who finds brotherhood when he joins the Marine Corps

Writer-director Elegance Bratton on the set of "The Inspection."Patti Perret/A24 Films via AP

Elegance Bratton was an unlikely Marine. The writer and director of the autobiographical film “The Inspection,” Bratton was raised in New Jersey by a teenage mom who had been orphaned at 10 and worked hard to buy her own home before she died. But she could also be cruel and unforgiving toward her son, whom she perceived as not masculine enough. When he came out to her at age 16, she slapped him in the face and told him he wasn’t wanted in her house.

Bratton, 43, spent most of the next decade homeless and largely aimless before joining the Marines in a desperate bid at finding self-worth. Despite official policies prohibiting open homosexuality, and hostility toward anyone presumed to be gay, Bratton endured — he not only survived boot camp, he found a new home and family in the Marines, serving in Hawaii as a combat camera production specialist. It was a role that would eventually shape his career.


After he served, Bratton majored in African American Studies at Columbia University and then got a master’s degree from New York University’s renowned Tisch film school. He committed to giving life to untold stories across multiple media: His short film “Walk for Me” was about the nurturing role trans women play in New York’s ballroom scene; he also published a book of photos about that world, “Bound by Night,” and sold “My House,” a docu-reality series about the scene, to Viceland.

While finishing his first documentary feature, “Pier Kids,” which followed three LGBTQ homeless youths, Bratton shifted gears and began writing his own story in what became “The Inspection.”

The film stars Jeremy Pope as Ellis French, who leaves a homeless shelter for boot camp, where he finds both camaraderie and the sort of harsh judgment he had long faced from his mother (played by Gabrielle Union); there’s an encouraging drill instructor (Raúl Castillo), but the top man, Leland Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), wants French broken — not to be built back up but to be made into an example.


Bratton spoke recently by video about his experiences and how they shaped the film.

Jeremy Pope in "The Inspection."A24

Q. Your mother’s mistreatment of you left you homeless but also must have taken an emotional toll.

A. The narrative where you come out and things get better didn’t happen for me. Things got catastrophically worse.

I didn’t have a father growing up, so I had never had a voice besides my mother telling me “I could have left you in a shoebox,” “You’re a mistake,” You’re a failure.”

I had a certain level of belief when it came to survival — I knew how to do that, from moment to moment. But I felt like a passenger in my life for many years.

Q. What inspired you to tell your story?

A. “Pier Kids” took eight years to complete, starting in 2011, mainly because I didn’t know how to end the movie. Then I brought each kid into contact with their parent figure, and I thought, “I’m trying to have the conversations with their moms that I couldn’t have with my mom. Maybe I should go to my mother’s house and have this conversation.”

I knocked on the door. Not only did my mother not open it, she pretended not to be herself. She said from the other side of the screen, “I am not her.”


That was devastating. I was shocked by how much it hurt — it had been so long, and I’d done so much work. At that moment, I decided I needed to write this story because there were things I was still blaming myself for, and I needed to heal.

The film is 100 percent autobiographical in terms of French’s hopes, fears, and desires, even if it’s a situation I didn’t go through. But even if the locations are different, everything that happens with his mother is literally taken from my life.

Q. You’d never directed a feature. Were you confident you could pull it off?

A. I now have an extreme amount of self-belief. I’ve been homeless with nothing and worked my way from there to Columbia University and then NYU film school. I had done totally impossible things that normally don’t happen to people like me.

What let me own the process and not be intimidated is a valuable lesson I learned in the Marine Corps. When I joined, I thought I was worthless and my life had no meaning and there was no place for me in this world. Then I had a drill instructor tell me that my life was valuable because I had the responsibility to protect the Marine to my left and to my right.

I spent my childhood getting my ass kicked by my family and bullies at school. Everyone had told me I was weak because I was gay. But I’m not weak. The Marine Corps taught me how to defend myself.


And the Marines replace the negative mantras you hear in your head with a positive mental attitude. They replaced those thoughts with “You can do it,” “You’re important,” “You’re needed.” Those are the building blocks that helped me.

In the movie, there’s a drill instructor who is compassionate and caring, but the head drill instructor, Leland Laws, tries to destroy French.

I did have leadership that worked through negative reinforcement, but it made me stronger. More than one thing can be true at once, and the film is a celebration of the complicated messiness of being a human being. We are walking contradictions.

From "The Inspection."A24

Q. You’re telling a deeply personal story, but you’ve also created a small society led by Laws, a charismatic leader who is a bully willing to cheat and lie to get what he wants. Were there larger themes you were aiming for?

A. When I started writing in 2017, the whole country was really polarized. The Marine Corps was the place I learned how to talk to people very different from me and find common ground. Ultimately, we understood that if you don’t have my back, and I don’t have your back, then we’re both vulnerable.

I’ve been determined to communicate this message that we all need each other in this world.

When there were moments of crisis on the movie, my husband, Chester, kept reminding me I’m trying to start a conversation between left and right — and that goal was worth the trouble.


Interview was edited for length and clarity.