The filmmaker makes a bold debut with a queer military drama that draws from his own experiences. He tells IndieWire what he had to accept and what he had to let go of.
“The Inspection” doesn’t follow a typical script. It is a story of salvation without salvation; a strange story without sex; a racing story without the usual scenes of oppression. The only beats in this story are those carefully chosen by writer/director Elegance Bratton, who has made art out of his unlikely journey from homeless queer kid to naval photographer to acclaimed filmmaker.
“It was a whirlwind, to say the least. Just grow into it day by day. Because you dream about stuff like that, but it rarely happens, so it’s surreal. It’s brilliant, it’s fun, it’s exhausting,” Bratton said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I made this film to encourage a conversation between left and right, and that conversation is definitely happening, so I’m pretty encouraged by it all. But it’s an interesting borderline where you can exist as a black queer person.”
With a surname fit for a general and a first name more suited to the runway, the 39-year-old filmmaker is a colorful synthesis of everything he was and will become. He brings to his work that extremely rare quality of lived experience that film schools and unpaid internships cannot provide.
“I always say black queer people exist in the blind spot of a supposedly color-blind society,” he said. “Wanting to forget the legacy of racism, but also not wanting to acknowledge the specificity of queerness. So it’s always a struggle, but I think this film really brings together a lot of communities that wouldn’t normally speak. That is my intention, that is intended.”
In “The Inspection,” Jeremy Pope (starring in a riveting performance) plays Marine recruit Ellis French, who signs on in a last-ditch effort to win the love and respect of his cruelly homophobic mother (Gabrielle Union). earn. The film is mainly set during the grueling weeks of boot camp, with glimpses of his early life in a homeless shelter.
As a script for his senior thesis in NYU Tisch’s MFA film program, the script initially contained many more flashbacks. However, upon arriving on set, Bratton realized that with his “physicality,” Pope could “communicate the whole story.” With an actor like Pope, he didn’t need flashbacks.
“People who aren’t white cis people very often get put in a place where we have to explain ourselves and humanize ourselves, which I think is crazy — the whole concept of humanization through film,” he said. “Aren’t we human anyway? For whom do I humanize? Who doesn’t see me as a human? So I felt like losing those flashbacks was an important way to really live in the statement I want to make about what it means to be queer in the military. Being with this recruit instead of analyzing his difference.”
Though the story mostly stays in the present, there’s still room for a few imaginative distractions. Initially considered weak by his demanding drill sergeant (Bokeem Woodbine), Ellis secretly falls in love with his second-in-command, Rosales (Raúl Castillo).
In Ellis’ weary daydream, a group shower turns into a steamy gay bathhouse with a raunchy Rosales as the main course. The scene is a welcome change from the otherwise tense workouts, but also a relic of earlier drafts that were far more explicit.
“In the first draft, half read like ‘Beau Travail’ and half read like Falcon gay porn,” Bratton said. “But the tension of being queer and serving, during ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ that’s all in those little stealthy moments between men and women. … He’s navigating how that’s what he’s supposed to be in this space, and I think that influences the imagination. So we use the colors and the camera and the looks and the touches and the humidity and the steam… to suggest the history of this public sex bathhouse that this character might have. But it should never be explicit because it cannot be explicit.”
On his way out of homelessness, Bratton’s perspective on the military is far more nuanced than his intersectional identities suggest. As he toured the country with the film, particularly Texas and other parts of the South, he was pleasantly surprised by the response from ex-servicemen, many of whom simply identify with Ellis as another man in uniform. He is also prepared for possible criticism that the film is pro-military.
“It’s not a pro or anti-military film, it’s a pro-truth film,” he said. “I understand very well the feeling of desperation that many young people in this country feel when they join to fight for a country as a black soldier, Black Marine. The irony, the cruel irony of it all, doesn’t escape me. That the system made me risk my life to live the American Dream. … I know what it’s like to put yourself at risk for an institution or a country that sometimes didn’t do it for me.”
Like an officer assessing recruits, The Inspection peels back the myth of the American dream, exposing its dusty promises and flimsy construction. However, like a punitive drill sergeant, Bratton also sees potential in the shortcomings. He sees an opportunity that, for better or for worse, is the only chance for many people to improve their lives.
“I certainly understand how people can criticize US foreign policy,” he said. “But basically the same people who criticize this foreign policy also claim to be on the side of the poor. And if you’re on the side of poor people, you understand that people are fighting and struggling out here. If that is the case, who am I to judge how they get their pound of flesh?”
A24 launches The Inspection in select theaters on Friday November 18th.