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Elegance Bratton mines his troubled youth for ‘The Inspection’

Elegance Bratton sits on the rug, leaning against a couch for a portrait.
“I really grew up believing that I was an ‘abomination’ and trying to hide that as best as I could,” writer-director Elegance Bratton says of mining his life for the film “The Inspection.”
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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First things first about Elegance Bratton, writer-director of the semi-autobiographical military drama “The Inspection”: Elegance is, in fact, his given name.

“My mother claimed that when I was born — you know how babies get smacked and cry? — I got smacked and I gasped and looked back at her, and she thought it was the most ‘elegant’ thing she’d ever seen,” Bratton says in a recent Zoom call from Texas, where “The Inspection” was screening in the Austin Film Festival. Regarding what some might consider an unlikely male name, he adds, “Every room I’ve ever walked into from the time I can remember, everyone assumed that I was gay before I knew what it meant to be gay.”

This is particularly ironic, given that, when Bratton was 16, his devout mother (embodied in the film by a fierce Gabrielle Union), threw him out of their New Jersey home for being gay. He lived homeless and desperate for 10 years until 2005, when, during the military’s controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” era, he enlisted in the Marines. Bratton’s grueling but formative boot camp experiences compose the vivid, propulsive heart of “The Inspection.”

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Bratton entered the Corps in large part to prove to his estranged mother, who died in 2020, that he was “a man,” that he was worthy. “I grew up in a relatively religious household,” says Bratton, “so biblical Scripture was attached to my identity. I really grew up believing that I was an ‘abomination’ and trying to hide that as best as I could.

“But when I came out, it did not get ‘better.’ It got much, much, much worse. And then I joined the Marine Corps, and my drill instructor let me know that my life had value — at a time when no one told me my life had value.”

Bratton calls his proxy in the film, Ellis French (Jeremy Pope of the Netflix miniseries “Hollywood” and “One Night in Miami ...”), “a much more heroic version of myself, who does things that I would never do.”

“There were things that we just didn’t have to explain to each other,” the actor says of writer-director Elegance Bratton, on whose life the film is based.

Like many of the movie’s characters, including steely senior drill sergeant Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), more sympathetic drill instructor Rosales (Raúl Castillo), and his eclectic band of fellow recruits, French is a composite of the Marines Bratton met during his grueling stretch in a South Carolina boot camp.

Unlike French, Bratton was not exposed as gay in the communal shower nor did he nearly drown at the hands of his drill sergeant during an aquatic exercise. He also never made a misguided sexual advance toward his assistant drill instructor. But real life rarely plays out exactly like a movie, so Bratton, as with most filmmakers who mine their pasts for the screen, took careful creative license in order to tell the most compelling and profound version of his story.

“This is based on my experience, but this is not a simple act of recollection,” Bratton notes. “For me, this is about the emotional resonance of the lived experience…. As a Black gay man who was out before I went to the Marine Corps, boot camp was my war … I wanted to really focus on what does it mean to be a true outsider in a place like that?”

He continues, “But what French discovers is that everybody’s an outsider, every man in this space is being asked to live up to something that is impossible. And what makes the significance of his queerness so important is that by being his authentic self, he’s provided a model for all of those other men on how to make peace with the fact that they’re not ‘real men’ either. And he learns that his sexuality is not the defining factor in this. It’s the system that decides it.”

Bratton was introduced to filmmaking post-boot camp when he was assigned to serve as a combat camera operator. He began with a stint in Hawaii and was later re-stationed to New York as a military police officer. Bratton went on to graduate from Columbia University, after which he earned an MFA in directing and writing from the New York University Tisch School of the Arts.

Despite the tortured relationship he endured with his unyielding mother, who died three days before “The Inspection” was given the go-ahead, Bratton credits her with his career as a prize-winning filmmaker. (In 2021, he won the Independent Spirit Truer Than Fiction Award for his first full-length documentary, “Pier Kids.”)

“My mom was flawed, but I honestly wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn’t for my mother,” he says. “When she came to my [boot camp] graduation, it was one of the best moments of my life.”

Although “The Inspection” can be nominally compared to such Marine Corps dramas as “Full Metal Jacket” and “Jarhead,” Bratton cites his own personal cinematic touchstone: “Rocky.”

“I watched that movie maybe 200 times while writing this script,” Bratton says, “because of [its] whole idea of a man going up against insurmountable odds because of the love of a woman. That, to me, is the core: [French] will do anything to win back his mother’s love and validation. But then he ultimately learns how to respect himself through surviving the ordeal.”


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