The inspection Director Elegance Bratton had come a long way to bring his latest work to the big screen: the New Jersey native was once homeless until he decided to join the Marines. The inspection is a narrative account of his boot camp experience as a gay soldier navigating his way through the hypermasculine maze of the military.
The A24 film that can be described as full metal jacket meets moonlight, with a hedonistic veil of lustful longing. It’s a collaboration with producer Effie T. Brown, who has revamped her Game Changer Movies imprint to support a broader range of storytellers.
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Bratton recruited an impressive cast to bring his true story to life. Broadway nominee Jeremy Pope plays Ellis French alongside Gabrielle Union who portrays Inez French, his disapproving, homophobic mother. Bokeem Woodbine commands every scene as a steely drill sergeant, and Raul Castillo received a Gotham Award nomination for his role as Ellis’ object of desire, Laurence Harvey. Only murders in the building Fan favorite Aaron Dominguez rounds out the ensemble as French’s brother in arms in his early training days.
Tony Award-winning actor Jeremy Pope understood that being the avatar for Bratton was an emotional endeavor. Pope recalls having “lovely conversations” with Bratton about how to embody his lived experience on screen.
“There are also some things I want to bring to the table to create my own kind of experience and identify as black and gay,” says Pope. “He wholeheartedly said yes and amen to that. He encouraged me to find and play and craft. I am so grateful to him for allowing me to shape my interpretation of French. It was his first time learning how to become a director, producer and writer. He did it with gold stars and he protected me and made sure I had enough to put on a performance I could be proud of.”
Bratton survived both homelessness and military service, eventually earning degrees from Columbia and NYU. He also mined his life for material while making his documentary, Pier Kids, about homeless queer teenagers who lived on the streets to survive. We spoke to him about how his relationship with his mother shaped the film, Gabrielle Union’s portrayal of her and how the military gave his life meaning at a very difficult time.
Shani Harris: Can you tell us something about the process of making the film and the inspiration? You had no place to stay and then joined the military and that shaped your struggle and the journey you take in the film.
Elegance Bratton: Yes, I joined the Marine Corps after being homeless for ten years. My mother kicked me out when I was sixteen because I was gay. When I got to the doorstep of boot camp, I genuinely thought I was worthless and my life had no meaning, worth, or purpose. I was fortunate to have a Drill Instructor tell me that was a lie and that in fact my life had value, meaning and purpose. Because I had a responsibility to protect the marines on either side of me. This responsibility was transformative. I had never been given so much confidence in someone else’s life. It meant a lot to me to believe that someone thought I could take on that responsibility. That’s why I made the film. I was really hoping to get a message out there that we owe it to each other to protect each other because we are all connected.
I can’t survive without you and you can’t survive without me, so we have a responsibility to find middle ground even if we disagree. That’s why the film exists. To also talk about the light-hearted element of connection. We are in a difficult situation. Sometimes the things that make you cry can turn into something that makes you laugh. I think that’s healing, that’s why the film was made.
Shani Harris: Can you talk about the casting process and if you were able to reconcile with your mother before she died?
Elegance Bratton: I have to commend Kim Coleman. She is our casting director. Nothing works without Kim and we love Kim. In terms of reconciliation, my mother passed about three days after we got the green light for February 2020. She never got the chance to see the film. We didn’t speak when she died. I am very grateful to Gabrielle Union for helping bring my mother back to life. She gave a lot of space in her process of preparing Inez for my grieving process and anger. I felt like she brought so much into this role.
But as a person she brought me a lot, giving me a sense of completion that I wouldn’t have had if she hadn’t portrayed Inez. Every piece of jewelry Gabby wears in the film belongs to my mother. Her bible is my mother’s bible and her styling is based on how my mother looked when she was raising me. I am really grateful to Gabrielle Union. She’s out here doing this work with her daughter Zaya and I think at first she felt like this wasn’t right for her. But she found these commonalities and the things people are willing to do, especially black people, who are willing to do to survive in this system. How respectability can compel you to put your own family on the auction block. She was able to see through the lens of her career in Hollywood and her development as an artist. I will be eternally grateful for bringing this development to Inez.
Shani Harris: You put a dedication to your mom in that inspection credits. Inspired by your relationship with her and your military experience, how do you think she would have felt if she could see the work you brought to screen?
Elegance Bratton: I think she would have been really proud. Thing is, when we’re all alive, we’re juggling rotating plates. When you die, these plates will crash to the ground, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have someone who loves you enough to put the pieces back together and understand you. When I had the opportunity to clean up my mother’s house after her life was taken, a house I had not spent time in, I found that she had many unused paperclips. Searching her computer turned up my name. She kept everything from my childhood and every report card, so many receipts with baby shoes. I think there was some pride, even if her mental struggles limited her ability to express it.
That is also the reason why I made this film. I’m making a film that challenges the idea that forgiveness is a form of weakness in men. I think forgiveness is a source of strength. Through this filmmaking process I was able to explore the forgiveness that I have. My mother is the first person to ever love me completely and reject me completely. She was a complicated woman. This film is a testament to the complicated nature of human existence.
The inspection is coming to cinemas now.
Main image: Jeremy Pope walks in the inspection Directed by Elegance Bratton.