‘The Inspection’ Explores ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ Through the Eyes of a Young Black Marine

Director Elegance Bratton tells Jezebel how he, like his film's protagonist, survived homophobia, homelessness, and the military.

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‘The Inspection’ Explores ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ Through the Eyes of a Young Black Marine
Image:A24/Patti Perret

“Every movie is a miracle,” writer/director Elegance Bratton told Jezebel while discussing his debut feature, The Inspection, last month. Some miracles, though, are more miraculous than others. The six-year process Bratton went through, from putting words on the page to having his semi-autobiographical film produced, is impressive by any measure, given its optics: Its protagonist, like Bratton, is a Black gay man who finds refuge in the military, and the movie takes no apparent stance on the greater implications of the manufacturing of human war machines. But it is even more so when Bratton’s complete biography is taken into account. The Jersey-born Bratton’s mother kicked him out at 16 as a result of his sexuality, and he spent more than 10 years on the street. When we meet French, his onscreen avatar played by Jeremy Pope, he’s living in a shelter.

“I had grown up with the notion that I was worthless because of my sexuality—that my life had no meaning and I had no future,” Bratton said. “And then I joined the Marine Corps at that moment of desperation, and my drill instructor informed me that actually I was important, that I did matter, because of my ability to protect and serve the person to my left and right—that my life depends on them and their life depends on me. That was a really transformational moment in my life.” After leaving the Marines, Bratton attended Columbia University and got his MFA at New York University. He went on to direct the 2019 documentary Pier Kids about queer youth in New York, as well as the Vice ballroom series My House.

Image:A24/Patti Perret

If this redemption arc were neat, though, Bratton wouldn’t have had the reference material to make the nuanced film that he did. For one thing, he enlisted when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was still very much in effect, which meant that his refuge wasn’t an entirely safe space. Like French, his sexuality was sussed out fairly early at boot camp.

“Well, my name is Elegance,” he said to display his lifelong inability to hide in plain sight. That name was, ironically enough, given to him by his mother, who rejected him for being gay. “This is why [the movie] has to be nuanced, because the tragic and the comedic are literally hand-in-hand,” he added.

Bratton said that The Inspection is “100 percent autobiographical when it comes to the desires, hopes, and fears of the main character,” but not everything that happens in the movie is a strict reflection of his life. During a climactic scene, French applies camo makeup with the heavy hand of a drag queen (replete with a smoky, lined eye). That didn’t happen. Earlier, French’s body inadvertently outs him to his fellow recruits as they bathe alongside each other. “I never got an erection in the shower,” recalled Bratton. And then, after a beat: “Well…not that way.”

That shower scene is particularly ingenious because the fantasy that leads to French’s arousal is predicated on the slightest of shifts from the homosocial to the homoerotic. In French’s mind’s eye, the light changes, and he and his extremely good-looking peers (including McCaul Lombardi and Only Murders in the Building’s Aaron Dominguez) saunter around in towels, leaning on each other seductively, as if in a bathhouse (or the steam room of virtually any New York gym’s men’s locker room). There was something very real about the charge that scene gets at.

“I came into the Marine Corps as an out gay man,” said Bratton. “And so I had all this experience. I’d spent plenty of time in Chelsea and the West Village—you know, the club scene and all these places that were undeniably gay. And there’s just all of this wild overlap [in the Marines].” One example he noted occurred during his inspection, in which various officers gathered to judge the fit of his uniform.

“I would be surrounded by men who are literally feeling me up, every part of me: ‘Come over here, look at his ass,’” he continued. “And I’m like, ‘Wait. I’m not allowed to get turned on by this at all? You’re not turned on at least a little bit?’ I find that to be funny. You either make it funny or you get your ass kicked. And that’s how I grew up.”

You are in some ways promised an early and unremarkable death as a Black gay man in America.

It would be a mistake to call The Inspection apolitical—the politics of this story of a Black gay man’s survival are inherent. But, Bratton concedes, “Boot camp is not a place for political discussion,” and his generally well-received movie’s lack of condemnation of the military has been perceived by some as a sign that it is propaganda. In the beginning of our interview, Bratton stated that he had a Notes document in his phone with talking points. He did consult it once during the 20 minutes or so that we talked. In response to the question of propaganda, though, what unspooled in real time was akin to a live essay.

“On some level, all art is propaganda, right?” he began. “It doesn’t necessarily exist if not to represent points of view, and in its bare essence, that’s what propaganda is, right? In that sense, this movie is not pro-military, it’s not anti-military. It’s pro-truth. This is about a young man who’s willing to do anything to win back his mother’s love, even if it means going to a place that he may find dangerous.”

“It’s not pro-military propaganda,” he continued. “There’s actually a lot of statements and satirical things being applied [regarding] how I have come out of this experience to be who I am. For instance, that scene in the trailer where he’s like, ‘If I die in this uniform, I’m a hero to somebody,’ however you feel about it, that’s true. You are in some ways promised an early and unremarkable death as a Black gay man in America. And it’s not an event. Nobody cares. But you die in a military uniform, all of a sudden you’re a hero. For me, that was enough. I was homeless. I was in a shelter. What was I gonna do? So it’s not to say that the Marine Corps is an idealistic place, but it is to say to this generation of queer people and young people who are inheriting a world that is going to be remarkably more difficult to grow up in than anything you or I have ever experienced: Find your tribe where you need to find it. Your survival matters. We need you here.”

Image:A24/Patti Perret

For Bratton, The Inspection was not merely a chance to uplift and affirm potential viewers, it was a chance for him to work through his own trauma. His mother died shortly after the movie was greenlit, which made playing out their fraught relationship on screen cathartic. Gabrielle Union depicts French’s mother in the film. She packs years’ worth of emotion into just a few onscreen minutes and seems like a shoe-in for a Best Supporting Actress nod.

“I’m so grateful to Gabrielle and Jeremy, because they brought my mother back to life,” said Bratton. “[Union] gave me an opportunity to revisit things that had been said to me, things that had been done to me over and over and over again.”

The director said that working through his pain for the sake of potentially inspiring others has brought him to “the most healed place I can possibly be.” But he wants to make clear that he’s been doing that personal work—that sloughing off the injustices of the past is a process. “This movie is not the representation of me dealing with it for the first time,” said Bratton. “This is the celebration of me getting through it.”

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