Elegance Bratton Talks About “The Inspection” at HCAF
His autobiographical film is about a gay, Black man who joins the Marines and finds a home.
Elegance Bratton wrote and directed the new film, The Inspection. The film is one of several with LGBTQ characters and themes to be screened at the 14th Annual Houston Cinema Arts Festival.
Based on Bratton’s life, “The Inspection” follows Ellis French (played by Jeremy Pope). His mother (played by Gabrielle Union) kicks him out the house as a teen for being gay, ruthlessly rejecting him. French lives on the streets for several years before eventually joining the Marines.
One particularly poignant scene is when French returns to his mother’s house to pick up his birth certificate which he needs to enlist. It’s heartbreaking and Union is perfect in her absolute dismissal of her son.
In the Marines, French surprisingly finds friends and eventually, a family.
After his enlistment, he graduated from Columbia University with a degree in African American Studies, and received his MFA from New York University Tisch School of the Arts for directing and writing.
We spoke with Bratton about The Inspection, just before he came to Houston for the Festival.
OutSmart Magazine: Congratulations on the film. You’ve been screening “The Inspection” at festivals recently. What’s it been like, watching this movie, your story on the big screen with hundreds of people in the audience?
The movie is 100 percent autobiographical when it comes to the hopes, dreams, and desires of the French character. Everything with the mother and the son is all directly out of my life.
So it’s very emotional for me to watch it with people. So much so, that I’ve stopped watching it now that I’m tour with it. When I was in Toronto, I was a mess. I was crying through the entire question and answer period.
When we grow up abused, it’s very hard not to blame yourself for it. I was a child and obviously I could not have done anything to have deserved any of that. I understand that intellectually but it’s taken me years – years and years and years – for me to get to a place where I can believe that it’s not my fault. Years for me to believe that there was nothing I could have done differently that would have made a difference.
So when I’m in a crowd, and I can see people feel for him, get mad for French. When there are hundreds of people who are saying, ‘It’s not your fault,’ that’s very overwhelming for me. Because most of the time that I was living it, I didn’t know that.
People clap for French in the movie. But when I was going through all of that, I was so alone. I felt like nobody cared for me. To have that be proven wrong on such a huge scale and such a huge stage, it’s overwhelming. In the best possible way, of course. I’m very grateful for that.
You’ve talked about there being healing in writing the film. More healing in making the film and I’m going to guess even more healing seeing it with audiences. What’s that been like?
I set out to make this movie, first to win back my mother’s affection. Unfortunately, she passed right after I got the movie green-lit.
So then, the next goal became for this movie to become an example for anyone who’s ever been kicked out, who’s ever been abandoned, abused. Anyone who has ever been told that they are not enough, I wanted them to know that that’s a lie.
Now the message of the film is to honor the person to your left and the person to your right. I learned that in the Marine Corp and that’s a very important message. I was homeless for ten years. I did all the things that you have to do to survive. And I made it to the other side.
This film is proof that it’s possible for anyone who has been where I’ve been to get to where I am. That’s healing. It’s such a joy to be able that to share that message with the world.
Sure, it’s overwhelming and it’s a lot of work, but at the same time, it’s a mile marker. It’s proof for me. From 18 years old to right now, I did what I was supposed to do. I’ve made peace with where I come from.
How are audiences interacting with you at screenings?
They tell me, ‘Oh my God, that was awful what happened to you. Are you alright now?’ I appreciate that.
What you’re watching in this movie is, for sure, something that has an effect on me. But I’ve forgiven it. I’ve left it in the movie.
What really makes me break down sometimes is when people I don’t expect reach out to me. I had this white, straight guy DM me on Instagram. He told me, ‘I joined the Navy when I was 18 years old. I was estranged from my father and I had to go get my birth certificate from my dad. And I’ve never seen anyone tell our story as well as you did.’
I didn’t expect that. That’s the next level of healing, to realize that you’re not alone. It’s not because I’m gay that this happened to me. It’s not because I’m black. It’s nothing I did or am. Really, it’s not about me.
When this white, straight guy reached out to me, I realized that this thing I thought was so much just mine, other people have gone through it, too.
The people you turn to for support are Marines. They don’t have the reputation for being accepting of LGBTQ people or for being very emotional. How did you break through that macho exterior that Marines walk around with?
I think Marines are really emotional. Being on base with these guys, especially during the Iraq War, was emotional. These young men and women are going overseas and seeing the most horrific things. Often, they’re doing some horrific things.
Then your deployment ends nine months later and you’re sent back to wherever you came from. And you’re supposed to go to McDonald’s and go bowling, everything you used to do, just like nothing happened.
French goes into the Marine Corp thinking he’s unfit and worthless. His mother didn’t want him, didn’t value him. And he believes her opinion of him.
But then his drill instructor tells him that he is valuable. He’s valuable because of his ability to protect the person to his left and the person to his right. That makes him valuable. That makes him important.
That little piece of value changed everything.
I joined the Marines because I thought I was worthless. I had let down my mother, this woman who sacrificed so much for me to be here and I didn’t have the decency to not be gay.
Once French realizes that he is valuable, it gives him the courage to be his most authentic self.
The Marine Corp is a chosen family. My motto is ‘I side with the troops.’ This is not a pro-military film. It’s not an anti-military film. It’s a pro-troop film.
When I was a homeless, gay, Black man, it was the relationships that I formed in the Marines Corp with individuals that changed my life. I believe that human connection is so much more important than titles or rank or any of that.
Once French becomes vulnerable, it gives other people permission to be vulnerable. All of the sudden he starts to have more meaningful relationships. It forces the people who are trying to oppress him to shift what they’re doing. They can’t oppress him in the same way when he’s his authentic self, and connected to the people around him as they can when everyone is isolated and in their own self-doubt and insecurity.
Each one of these guys is trying to navigate intimacy and trust with other men. For French, his idea of love was very transactional. ‘If you’re a man and you show me kindness, you must want sex.’
But one by one, he starts to see that everyone thinks love is transactional. Through his example of being his true, authentic self, through his example that your weakness is your strength, it makes the people around him into emotional creatures as well.
What’s next for you?
I have a feature doc called “Hell Fighter.” It’s about James Reese Europe. He’s an Army veteran from the early 20th Century. He was the first Black composer to conduct a concert at Carnegie Hall. He was also the first Black officer to serve in an international war, in WWI. He took the 369th Regiment, Black troops known as the Hell Fighters, to France. There he introduced Europeans to ragtime music, to Black American music. Essentially, we’re looking at how what he did laid the ground work for Black entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement.
We have free tickets to the screening of The Inspection at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival. The film opens the festival with a screening at 8 p.m. on November 10 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Please send an email to [email protected] for your free tickets.