The military has a convoluted history with LGBTQ service members. At one point, a person could be criminalized and discharged, at another point being gay or queer was deemed a mental illness. During the “Excellence Eighties,” gays were officially banned from serving in the military. 1994’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was another problematic, discriminatory policy that was finally repealed in 2011 during President Obama’s term. Even though it’s legal for LGBTQ men and women to enter the military now, some still fight an uphill battle against bias. Filmmaker Elegance Bratton came to terms with his sexuality and his place in the world when he served in the U.S. Marine Corps. His journey has been painful and rewarding.
There have been a few noteworthy films that have focused on gays in the military, including Moffie (2019) and Firebird (2021). However, none of them have been through the lens of a Black American gay male. Elegance Bratton’s upcoming The Inspection scours the soul of the main protagonist Ellis, played sensitively and nuanced by Jeremy Pope, and juxtaposes this exploration with a combing of the nation’s psyche towards the LGBTQ community. The searing A24 drama that questions what the real definition of a man is stars Pope, Gabrielle Union, Bokeem Woodbine, and Raúl Castillo and will be released exclusively in theaters on November 18, 2022.
Elegance overcame a lot to get to where he is. His life is an example of the necessity of perseverance. Recently, he was gracious enough to share his personal and filmmaking journey with us.
When you were in the Marines, what was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself?
The most surprising thing I learned about myself in the Marine Corps was that I was physically strong and fast. That I could fight, that I have hands. I didn't know I had hands because I spent most of my life getting my a*s kicked...! When I started to do Marine Corps martial arts, I was into it. I was like, ‘Wow, I can do fifteen pull-ups?’ I had been told that because I was gay, I'd never be a real man. Being physical is supposed to define manhood and to be in a world where that's expected of you and to have no idea you're capable of defending yourself...it was amazing for me to discover this about myself.
I'm sure that training as a Marine was physically challenging, but what were some things that pleasantly surprised you about the Marine Corps?
The kind of chosen family of it all. Growing up as a Black gay kid, I wasn't really invited into male things. I wasn't invited to fix the car. I wasn't invited to fix the roof. None of that. When I joined the Marines, I had a drill instructor who told me, 'You have value. You're important. Your life has meaning because of your ability to protect the Marine to your left and to your right.' That was a profound, transformational idea for me at that time in my life. I'd believed everything my mother had told me, that I deserved everything that had happened to me because I was gay. This film reminds everyone of their ability to protect and serve the person to their left and to their right.
Your relationship with your mother seemed to be the root of a lot of your trauma. When did you first notice things start to go south with her?
Make no mistake about it, I wouldn't be a filmmaker if it wasn't for my mother. My mother died about three days after the film was greenlit. As much trauma as she caused, I realized everyone in their life is juggling plates and when you die, all those plates come crashing to the ground and if you're lucky, you have someone who loves you and will put the pieces of that back together.
When I got a chance to go into my mother's home after she passed, I saw that she had printed out all of my newspaper clippings and everything that I had online. She had been paying attention to me. But simultaneously, she gave me all that trauma too. When I was restationed from Hawaii, where I was a combat artist, to New York, where I became a military police officer, my mom calls me up, 'Oh, you're a filmmaker now? Why don't you go buy a camera and film your little sister's graduation?' I got there and nobody at my sister's school even knew she had a brother. I was really upset by that. In that moment, I resolved that I'd be a filmmaker. When it comes to my mother, she is the first person to have ever loved me completely and the first person to have rejected me wholly. Our relationship was complicated but loving her makes me feel better and I made this film to prove to people that forgiveness isn't a weakness but a source of strength.
Walk me through the journey of getting this project done, from inception to completion.
I wrote the first draft of this script in 2017 while I was a student at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. I was in the graduate film program, and I'd just sold a television series to Viceland called My House, so I finally had a little bit of money.
What's My House about?
My House is a ten-part documentary series about the ballroom scene and life outside of competition. When people aren't voguing, who are they? It centers on Black, queer, trans, and gay folks from the house ballroom scene in New York City. We follow them in and out of competitions to understand what it means to be Black and queer in the 21st Century.
What lessons did you learn from putting that show together that helped you develop this project?
The lesson I carry forth in the film is the power of self-acceptance and self-love. For Hollywood, the audience rules everything. If you're a minority, you're going to have a little bit of a hill to climb as a filmmaker. My House taught me to love myself and my community, to take pride in my community, and that we make our art seriously. If you have that clarity, anything is possible. I'm always grateful for that experience with Viceland because it strengthened my resolve and validated my intent and purpose as an artist.
You wrote the first draft of The Inspection. Then what happened with it?
After I wrote the first draft, I knew I wanted it to be an A24 movie. I was in a partnership with producer Chester Gordon, who guided me through the creative process and really observed the connection I had with my Marine buddies and kept reminding me of that. Chester applied to Tribeca All Access with the film, and we got into that. We had the chance to pitch about sixty people from various companies. We got into a couple of other labs too. He reached out to Effie Brown in 2018. They went to the last Film Independent Gala and pitched Effie right on the spot while she was getting honored. We emailed the script. It wasn't until we did Film Independent Fast Track in 2020 that Effie came on board. A perfect storm of things happened. The film got greenlit and now we're here.
What was the most challenging day of the shoot?
The shoot was challenging overall because we were shooting in Mississippi in the summer, so it was hot hot...slavery hot! Then we had to deal with the pandemic. We ended up getting shut down and losing five days. We shot the entire movie in nineteen days. The craziest day was probably the second to last day, our last day in Mississippi. I had the graduation that day, I had bits and pieces of the crucible that night, I had pre-COVID pickups. It was also a nightmare to get extras because there were four productions shooting down there at the same time as us. I was expecting 500 extras that day and got way less, so I had to rethink everything. It was a tough day, but we got through it. At the end of the day, the visual language of the film was my North Star in the process. A lot of things I was taught in film school really came together for me on this day.
How do you feel your directing dictates your writing project?
I think it's the other way around, my writing dictates my directing. I come from a documentary background. I actually have cinematic dyslexia in that I don't see a difference between documentary and fiction film. I think they are two different paths to the same outcome, which is a presentation of a truth. I'm very much about the actors. What are they feeling for the day? I translate that documentarian spirit by having sublime trust in my actors and their kinetic life.
How did you do the casting for the film?
I have to give a shout-out to Kim Coleman, she's the casting director with the mostest. With Gabrielle Union, it comes back to this moment where I resolved to be a filmmaker. I know for a fact that if my mother never wanted to talk to me again, with the way Gabrielle Union is cutting up in this film as my mother, someone would be prompted to seek my mother out and have a word! As a Black, gay man, my identity is a Frankenstein-like assemblage of utterances and moments that I feel are me, but we are rarely the star of the show.
Does your writing process for shorts and features differ?
The writing process for a feature is more organic and lived in. To write this, I did live readings of it. Finding the invention and the actuality to create the cinematic, that's what it's all about.
The Inspection is only in Theaters on November 18, 2022