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A conversation with Elegance Bratton, director of 'The Inspection'

ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

"The Inspection" is a moving, emotional film about a young, gay, Black man named Ellis French who's rejected by his mother. After years of living on the streets and in homeless shelters, French decides to make a desperate change. He joins the United States Marine Corps.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE INSPECTION")

JEREMY POPE: (As Ellis French) Most of my friends are dead or in jail. The streets was going to kill me no matter what. So if I die in this uniform, I'm a hero, somebody.

DEGGANS: Elegance Bratton knows this story all too well. He's the writer and director of "The Inspection," which is inspired by his life. He joins us now. Welcome to the show, Elegance.

ELEGANCE BRATTON: Hey, thanks for having me, Eric. Excited to be here.

DEGGANS: So for people watching the film who don't know your backstory, they might not even know the movie is autobiographical until the end, when we see that photo of you in uniform. So how close is the script to what you experienced?

BRATTON: "The Inspection" is 100% autobiographical when it comes to the hopes, fears, desires and motivations of its lead character, even if it's a situation that I personally haven't been in. But when it comes to the relationship with his mother, it's ripped directly out of my life - all words that were said, dynamics that were real. But even that requires a bit of finessing when making it into a motion picture.

DEGGANS: So, yeah, in the film, French is hazed by his fellow recruits for being gay. He's beaten up and nearly drowned by one of his drill instructors. That didn't exactly happen to you, but you did start basic training during the era of "don't ask, don't tell," when LGBTQ people were expected not to be open about their sexual orientation. Why do you think it was important for French to go through these physical assaults that we saw in the film?

BRATTON: The whole idea in boot camp, in particular, is to root out weakness. And I've been in so many situations where leadership has a thing for a certain marine and then the whole system kind of caves on them, right? So there's that. Then on the other side of it, French is representative of a story that I don't think has been told enough. Like, don't ask, don't tell may have gotten its name in the 1990s, but in actuality, queer servicemembers were forced to serve in silence for almost 80 years, cumulatively.

And, you know, queer hazing is - I mean, it's a part of American life. You know, I myself have been gay bashed before. I have friends who've been gay bashed before. So in that regard, unfortunately, I felt it was necessary to put that in there because we've all - I've been through my own systems of violence as a Marine, maybe not at boot camp in that particular way, but I've definitely had to prepare myself to fight off many people who I share a uniform with. And also, I'm not the only one. You know, French is really inspired by the queer journey in the military at large. And ultimately, his character is meant to express the shaky ground that queer troops have stood on for those 80 years that included don't ask, don't tell.

DEGGANS: Yeah. We played that clip earlier where the character says, you know, I might as well die a hero in uniform. But, I mean, that - deciding to go to the Marines, that still sounds like a huge leap. I mean, a gay man joining one of the most hypermasculine, notoriously tough spaces that you could imagine - why did you choose the Marines? And did you know what you were getting into when you made that choice?

BRATTON: I had a pretty good idea. I mean, ultimately, like I said, being homeless, Black and gay in America is the hardest thing you could ever be. My name is Elegance. Pretty much my entire life, any room I've ever walked into, people have assumed that I'm gay. And it's not like I didn't try to find other resources to connect to the world and find a way to be relevant in the world. But as a Black gay man, you know, I was met with a lot of ostracism and rejection at every turn. You know, when I got to the Marine Corps' doorstep, I felt like I was worthless. My mother kicked me out for being gay, and I spent 10 years homeless.

And then I was fortunate enough to have a drill instructor to tell me that I was valuable, that my life did have meaning because I had a responsibility to protect the Marine to my left and to my right. And that trust and that sense of, like, duty was transformational for me. It gave me a thing to hold on to and pull myself up. But at the end of the day, I was at a homeless shelter, and I was looking around that bad boy, and I saw nothing but Black men who were like, 20 or 30 years older than me, who had been homeless that whole time. And I had to ask myself if that was my future. I said, no, that can't be my future. You know, and then I was fortunate enough to have a Marine approach me the next morning. And I told him, like, listen, if I can look as good in that uniform as you do, if I can get that kind of respect, sign me up.

DEGGANS: Some of the most touching scenes in this film feature Gabrielle Union, who plays French's mother. They only have a few scenes together, and the last time they talk is at his graduation from basic training, when it seems like she might finally accept him. So let's listen to a little clip of that scene where French speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE INSPECTION")

POPE: (As Ellis French) I am never giving up on us. You belong to me as much as I belong to you.

GABRIELLE UNION: (As Inez French) I will love you till the day that I die. But I can't love what you are.

DEGGANS: Man, those two lines pretty much sum up their relationship. Was it difficult to watch these scenes recreated by these actors, knowing that they were bringing to life something that you went through?

BRATTON: That scene in particular was a very intense day for me. I ended that day pretty much an emotional wreck - in tears, screaming, mad, sad, all of it at once. Unfortunately, my mother was killed about three days after the movie was greenlit. So I told Gabby about this. And I just have to always express my gratitude to Gabrielle Union for taking this on. She really helped me to bring my mother back to life. And my mother - unfortunately, we never found closure. We never found peace with each other. She could never accept who I am.

But with Gabby's artistry and humanity and, really, activism as well, she just made herself into the ultimate warrior for this pain in my life. She wore my mother's jewelry in this film. She's styled to look like my mother, you know, when she raised me. And that scene in particular - you know, I walked away from that set healed that day, even though it was painful. And I'm hoping that anybody who's ever felt disregarded or anyone has ever felt overlooked in life and who's been told that they're not enough, that they'll walk away from this movie healed as well.

DEGGANS: What do you think your mother would have thought if she was able to see this film?

BRATTON: You know, when I had to go to my mom's house and clean it after she passed, she had all the clippings that I had of my short films. My New York Times article was in the house as well. She had kept every bit of me that I had left behind from the time I was born until the day that I left. She even had my Marine Corps photo attached to her keys. I have a feeling my mother would have been very proud. I don't know if she would have been gracious enough to put down all of her homophobia, but I do think the prospect of me becoming a successful film director would have probably brought her back somehow into my life, if only just for me to pay her back for high school (laughter) so, you know?

And that's the thing. My mother was a funny person, and this is also a very funny film. This is not just, you know, doom and gloom, right? My mother, I think, would have had a very hearty laugh at the end of all of this if I were to make a movie about her kicking me out and it ended up being a movie that made me able to, like, you know, leave a legacy for her grandchildren. And it would fill her with pride.

DEGGANS: That was writer and director Elegance Bratton. His debut feature film is "The Inspection," which is out now. Elegance Bratton, congratulations on the film, and thank you so much for sharing a little bit of yourself with us.

DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HANDS")

SERPENTWITHFEET: (Singing) No one told me flight's promise (ph) might be fragile, and that's OK. Hey... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
Mia Estrada
Mia Estrada is a 2021-2022 Kroc Fellow. She will spend the year rotating through different parts of NPR, including the Culture Desk, National Desk and Weekend Edition.
Adam Raney