Elegance Bratton Discusses ‘The Inspection,’ and Triumph Over Adversity
Written by Ayana Contreras on November 21, 2022
Vocalo’s Ayana Contreras chatted with director Elegance Bratton in advance of the release of his feature film debut: The Inspection, starring Jeremy Pope, Gabrielle Union and Bokeem Woodbine.
Rites of passage have the ability to make or break a spirit, or even the ability to define it. For A24’s The Inspection, director Elegance Bratton bravely mined rites of passages from his own history: both his transformative time in Marines boot camp as a Black, gay man (during the don’t ask, don’t tell era), and an attempt to mend his fraught relationship with his estranged mother. The result is a heartbreakingly beautiful portrayal of “triumph over adversity,” as Bratton described it on November 16. The New York Times called The Inspection “a lyrical, wrenching look” at basic training, while Vanity Fair called the film a promising debut, proclaiming that “Elegance Bratton Has Arrived“. The film opens in Chicago theaters on November 22.
The Inspection was also a selection for the Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago, where I first met Elegance. The last time that I saw him, he was resplendant in a chunky black sweater, Prada boots and a silver Telfar hat and I was in a cute but staid navy blue 1950s wiggle dress. But, I knew for this meeting, I had to deliver some fashion.
Elegance Bratton: What is this you have on? It looks vintage.
Ayana Contreras: Oh, first. Yeah, it’s a whole little drop-waist wool thing, with a little scarf tie thing.
EB: I love. She’s such a lady.
AC: Aww. Oh, my goodness. Okay. So I’m so happy to talk to you again.
EB: Sure. Me, too. I’m happy we ran into each other again. This is good. We need to do this more often.
Ayana Contreras: For sure, 100%. So, since we talked, what has been happening in your world?
EB: Wow. Well, I’ve been to more cities since then. I’ve now gone to St. Louis, San Diego, New York, and I’m in LA doing press, so I’ve been traveling a bunch. What else has happened that’s interesting? Oh, we’re about to release the movie this Friday, November 18th. So we’re building up to release and that’s crazy. My actor, Jeremy Pope, was on Jimmy Fallon last night. He said my name. I literally screamed that my name… Fallon.
Yeah, Gabrielle is doing a bunch of press, the other actors are doing a bunch of press. So, I’m starting to see the culmination of months and months of work, really years and years of work, as the movie emerges to the public consciousness. And that is just, I mean, I’m mostly excited about it. I’m a little nervous. Of course, I just don’t know how to do this without being a little nervous about the reaction. But I’m super encouraged as well. It’s been amazing.
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Ayana Contreras: I mean, that’s the thing, right? This is your debut feature film and it’s big. I mean, a lot of people’s debut feature film is not on this level immediately. It’s going to be at the AMC Theaters, which is a big deal. This a big deal, you know? I think it’s also a beautiful, beautiful representation of something that’s so close to you. There’s so many autobiographical elements to the film. So I guess that might, scaffolding, that might add an extra layer of stakes on your success.
EB: Oh, yeah. I mean, the fact that it’s based on my story. I mean, it’s tough because I’m always conscious of I don’t want the ticket-buying audience to feel like it’s so heavy, right? Because there’s a lot of levity in this movie. At the same time, though, what you brought up is heavy for me. Because when I was homeless, I was kicked out of my house when I was 16 years old for being gay and I spent 10 years homeless. And mind you, to stay homeless, to stay unhoused is a catchall term for all sorts of abuses, degradations, erasures, silencing, all sorts of things that you have to endure while you’re living as one of society’s untouchables.
So that when it was happening to me, I really, really felt worthless. I really, really felt, because my mother couldn’t accept me for who I am, there was something wrong with me and therefore, I deserved what my life had become. And my life was not worthy of celebration, my life was not worthy of contemplation, that my life was meant to be lived in secret. So, to put this moment in my life on screen and to have it play nationally and internationally in all these festivals. We closed the New York Film Festival, we opened the Toronto Film Festival, we closed the London Film Festival.
Sure, as a director, as a career director, this is a moment that I’m so grateful for. But as a human being, to have proof that the shame I was carrying, I didn’t deserve to have audiences of people buy tickets to experience this life that I thought made me untouchable. It’s just really transformational and I’m very, very grateful to have lived through it, to have survived it long enough to have this moment of triumph.
The movie is about triumph over adversity, and I get to say I’m experiencing that triumph over adversity in my real life. I’m just very grateful to God that it turned out like this. Because most of the people I came up with, it did not turn out like this. So yeah, I always say when, 20 years ago I was in a homeless shelter, literally. And I said a prayer for today to happen. And I didn’t know it at the time, but God had already said yes. I was already on my way to getting here. So I’m just very grateful.
Ayana Contreras: Yeah. So this film, to your point, it captures this moment when stepping out of homelessness and into the armed forces. It’s the Marines.
Ayana Contreras: So there were some people, there have been people who have thought that this is a pro-armed forces film. And to that, during our talk at the Black Harvest Film Festival, you were talking about choices. It’s not so much that this, it’s pro that, but you had a limited amount of choices to actually be able to change this, where you are at in your life and that was the choice that you made. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
EB: Sure. This is not a pro or anti-military film. It’s a pro-truth film. As a person who, my life got to a very desperate situation. And I want to preface this by saying that I tried everything I could do, everything I could possibly think of doing before joining the Marine Corps. Dozens, if not hundreds, of dead-end jobs, working in restaurants and working at fast food and trying to save up money to get the first and last and the security. It was never, ever going to happen with those jobs. At every point, when I tried to bring myself out of homelessness as a civilian, I was met with rejection and ostracism.
As a Black, gay man, I feel like I occupy that liminal space in a supposedly colorblind society, one that wants to wish racism away, but one that is also refusing to engage with the specificity of queerness. So, you’re a stranger in a strange land, ultimately. And I found myself in a homeless shelter at 25 years old. And I called my mom and I asked her if I could come back home, and she asked me if I was still gay, of course I said yes. She suggested I joined the military. I was not happy about that. It felt like she was saying you could be blown up. “I’d rather you be blown into pieces than be gay in my house.”
I went back to the shelter that night, I took a look around that room and realized that most of the men in that room were Black men. Most of them had been in that room much longer than me, been homeless much longer than me. And I had to ask myself if this was my future and my spirit said no. So, when I hear people critique the film, first of all, art is meant to be critiqued. And one thing that’s happening is that no matter how people feel about this film, whether they love it, whether they dislike it, whether they think it’s pro-military, anti-military, what have you, everybody’s passionate about it, in every direction, and that is a dream of every artist.
EB: I don’t need people to agree with me to feel like I’m successful. I think it’s important that there is a debate around what happens to poor people in this country. And there’s a line in the film, summarize all this where, it’s in the trailer as well, where French is in the van with Rosales, his drill instructor. And Rosales asks him, “Why do you want to be a Marine?” And French says, “Well, if I die on the streets, I’m just another dead Black, gay man. But if I die in this uniform, I’m a hero.” That’s directly out of my reasoning. I had reached a point in my life where a lot of my friends died young and a lot of my friends ended up going to jail.
And the thing about it is, when you’re Black and gay in America, one out of two Black, gay men are projected by the CDC to be HIV positive, eight times more likely to commit suicide, eight times more likely to be homeless [ed. note: Numbers vary by region in the U.S., but they consistently trend at rates much higher for Black, gay men than those of other groups (including among other gay men) in all noted categories].
Dying young, Black and gay is normal in America. It is how it goes. That is the status quo, untimely, unjust death. So what am I supposed to do? You know what I’m saying? What is French supposed to do? And at the end of the day, I think it’s valid to have a critique of US foreign policy. I think that it’s valid to engage in a conversation about peace. I think it’s necessary.
Violence doesn’t really solve anything. However, this movie’s not about that. This movie is about one man’s journey to self-acceptance. And as much as I have my critiques of the world that we live in, it’s just that. I think it’s crazy to me, sometimes, that people are like, “Well, their movie is pro anything.” If we live in a world where Black, gay men, their lives, their deaths don’t matter unless they put it on a uniform, how isn’t that a commentary on both the military and the society at the same time?
My goal as a filmmaker is to bring the audience to a place that they can never go without me. There is no safe place for me in the world, and this is not a safe film for you in the audience. This is a film that is meant to spark a conversation between right and left, bring people together who would never ever be in a room. And I’m grateful for my time in uniform. I appreciate the fact that the Marine Corps is the only team I’ve ever signed up for that couldn’t deny me.
And prior to being in the Marines, everything denied me. So yeah, for those who bristle at the idea of the military providing a transformational change in my life, they’re entitled to their opinion. But this movie is about bootcamp. It’s not about the war in Iraq. They’re not in war. Right now, they’re in a place where they get to actually form intimate connections with one another and connections that they’re going to remember and appreciate the rest of their lives. And that’s the tone that I chose to tell the story in.
Ayana Contreras: One of the things you brought up just now was your mother and how she’s a specter over this whole movie…
Ayana Contreras: … in terms of just the character in the film, but in real life as well. One thing that you mentioned when we were speaking last was that she wasn’t able to see the film, and yet at the same time, you felt as though the film itself was tying up some feelings. Can you talk a little bit about how this film is… in relationship to your relationship with your mother… that was never really resolved fully?
EB: Yeah. I mean, well it’s interesting you used the word specter, because from the time I was 16 to the time she passed in my 40s, she was not a real concrete presence in my life. She was, at a certain point, the negative voice in my head that made me feel like I could never get anything in life. If there’s anything I could say to listeners at home, be careful what you say to your kids, because they’ll repeat whatever you say to them in their heads their whole lives. And you can really slow up their progress by filling their heads with negativity.
And then when I started to stabilize my life, I guess this question dovetails into the casting a bit. But I got a chance, I was initially stationed in Hawaii and I got a chance to be re-stationed in New York, and I took it. And my mom called me up when I got to New York and she was like, “Oh, you think you bad? Think you’re a filmmaker? Okay, why don’t you come to your little sister’s elementary school graduation and film her graduation and show me what you got.” I get to the graduation, nobody knew my mother, not the teachers, not my sister’s classmate, nobody knew my mother had a son, at all. And that was really, really painful for me. And I ended up in that moment deciding to become a filmmaker for real now.
I refused to be erased, I refused to be avoided. You cannot ignore me. I will be on TV, I will be in the multiplex, people will talk to you about me. Which is one of the reasons why Gabrielle Union got the part. Because I knew for a fact that my mother, even if she didn’t want to talk to me, if Gabrielle Union is playing her in a movie, someone’s going to tell her about it, she’s going to watch it. And I wanted it to reach her. And unfortunately, my mom was killed a few days after the movie was greenlit, so I never got that chance.
But I’m very grateful to Gabby, because she brought my mom back to life and gave me a possibility and access to closure that I never would’ve gotten from my mom. My mother is the first person to love me completely. She’s also the first person to holistically reject me. She was a complicated woman, but at the end of the day, she’s a part of the reason why I’m here right now. When I was a kid, I used to wake up and she would say, the first thing she’d say to me in the morning is, “Be a credit to your race.” She would play Martin Luther King’s speeches in the house, and C.L. Franklin sermons. Sometimes even make me recite them. Right?
So there was a huge investment she had in helping me to become successful. But what I’ve come to realize is you can’t give somebody something that you haven’t been given. And my mother was a single, Black mother, teenage mother in the ’80s. She was opinionated, she was strong. And we’re in a world where those qualities in Black women are very often seen as negative, and Black women are silenced. And if you know the answers to the question and no one ever gives you the chance to say it, that could drive you crazy, you know? No one ever gave her the unconditional love that I was asking for, so she couldn’t give it to me.
Ayana Contreras: Thank you for being so open with that. One of the things that you brought up just now was Gabrielle Union’s role in this. I know she spoke to Vanity Fair and was talking about this particular role, and people have been saying that this is a role that’s going to make folks look at her differently. I mean, she’s always been a wonderful actress, but to really go, really push to capture this character of French’s mother, which, in essence, is your mother, but obviously there’s some fictionalizations.
Ayana Contreras: My question to you, though, is what was her role behind the camera? Because I know she was a producer.
EB: That’s right.
Ayana Contreras: But she was more than that, to making the film, right?
EB: Yeah. I mean, it was cool, actually. Because as an executive producer, she’s sitting at the top of the whole production in a way. So, from the logistical side and also the creative side, she’s got one foot on each, in that title anyway. But then, being one of the main actors in the piece, I found her to be really, really helpful. I consider her to be a mentor and a friend, because she has so much experience. I mean, sure there was things that happened between us, actor, director.
She was very adamant about making sure that Inez, was a three-dimensional person as much as I was, and making sure that this wasn’t a revenge piece, that we weren’t casting her as a villain, per se, but more so exploring her complexities as a human being. So I don’t want to make that seem slight. That was a major thing she contributed. But on another level, she was looking at the script as a producer and what can actually be pulled off in the time that we have? And those types of conversations were really helpful to me, one, imagining the essence of the emotional intent first, but then secondly, the logistics of how that thing will be filmed.
(L-R) Gabrielle Union and Jeremy Pope as Inez and Ellis French in ‘The Inspection.’ Credit : A24 Films
EB: She was really helpful in terms of, remember we were shooting in the prison scene and the cinematographer and I and the AD were having difficulty figuring out where to place the cameras in order to get all of the shots we needed. And Gabrielle just, in uniform, took a step and became the producer, was like, “Actually, I think you should put A cam here, B cam there. I did it on A, B, C and D project and it always works.” And I was like, “Okay, let’s do that.” Yeah, and she was really open to me calling her and asking her for advice. Just little things.
For instance, when I started working with Jeremy and I wanted to get into the rehearsals, I called Gabby. I was like, “How do you do that?” Because I had never done it before, and she just gave me that insight. Being behind the scenes, I think the fun part about this next phase of Gabby’s career, Gabrielle’s career, is going to be seeing how she expands upon this and the public getting to know her as a producer and as a creative producer, I think is going to be really exciting.
Because she’s so smart and she knows movies and she knows art. She has this ridiculously cool collection of fine art. Obviously she’s smart, she listens to her books. But until you get to spend time with her, you don’t realize she’s the real deal. She’s a cultural leader, full stop. And I’m excited for the public to see more of her prowess in that capacity.