“The Inspection” does not follow a typical script. It’s a salvation story without a rescue; a queer story without sex; a race story without the usual scenes of oppression. The only beats in this story are the ones carefully chosen by writer/director Elegance Bratton, who made art out of his improbable journey from homeless queer kid to Marine photographer to celebrated filmmaker.
“It’s been a whirlwind to say the least. Just growing into it day by day. Because you dream of stuff like this, but it rarely happens, so it’s surreal. It’s brilliant, it’s fun, it’s exhausting,” Bratton told IndieWire during a recent interview. “I made this movie to spark a conversation between left and right and that conversation is definitely happening, so I’m pretty encouraged by all of it. But it’s an interesting liminal space to exist in as a Black queer person.”
With a last name fit for a general and a first name better suited for the runway, the 39-year-old filmmaker is a dazzling synthesis of all he has been and all he has yet to become. He brings to his work that exceedingly rare quality of lived experience, one that can’t be taught at film schools and unpaid internships.
“I always say Black queer folks exist in the blind spot of a supposedly colorblind 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 battle, but I think this film is really bringing a lot of communities together that wouldn’t normally be speaking. That’s my intention, that’s by design.”
“The Inspection” stars Jeremy Pope (in a riveting, star-making performance) as Marine recruit Ellis French, who enlists in a last ditch effort to earn his cruelly homophobic mother’s (Gabrielle Union) love and respect. The film takes place mostly during the grueling weeks of boot camp, with brief glimpses of his former life in a homeless shelter.
As his thesis screenplay at NYU Tisch’s MFA film program, the script initially included many more flashbacks. Once he got on set, however, Bratton realized Pope could “communicate all that history” with his “physicality.” With an actor like Pope, he didn’t need the flashbacks.
“People who are not white cis people, very often we’re put in a place where we have to explain ourselves and do the work of humanizing ourselves, which I find to be maddening — the whole concept of humanizing through film,” he said. “Aren’t we human beings anyway? Who am I humanizing myself for? Who doesn’t see me as a human being? So I felt like losing those flashbacks was an important way to really live in the statement that I want to make about what it means to be queer in the military. To be with this recruit rather than to dissect his difference.”
Though the story remains mostly in the present, there is still room for a few fanciful diversions. Initially singled out as weak by his exacting drill sergeant (Bokeem Woodbine), Ellis becomes furtively enamored with second in command Rosales (Raúl Castillo), who looks out for him.
In Ellis’ exhausted daydream, a group shower turns into a steamy gay bathhouse, with a slippery Rosales as the main dish. The scene is a welcome digression from the otherwise tense trainings, but it’s also a relic of earlier drafts that were far more explicit.
“In the first draft, half of it read like ‘Beau Travail’ and the other half read like a Falcon gay porn,” Bratton said. “But the tension of being queer and serving during ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ it’s all in these little furtive moments amongst men and women. … He’s navigating how to be that in that space and I think that effects the fantasy. So that’s why we’re using the colors and the camera and the looks and the touches and the moisture and the steam…to suggest this public sex bathhouse history this character may have. But it’s never meant to be explicit because it can’t be explicit.”
As his path out of homelessness, Bratton’s perspective on the military is far more nuanced than his intersectional identities might suggest. Traveling the country with the film, particularly in Texas and other parts of the South, he’s been pleasantly surprised by the response from former service members, many of whom simply identify with Ellis as another man in uniform. He’s also prepared for potential criticism that the film is pro-military.
“It’s not a pro or anti-military film, it’s a pro-troop film,” he said. “I understand intimately that feeling of desperation that a lot of young people in this country have when they join to fight for a country as a Black soldier, Black Marine. The irony, the cruel irony of it all is not lost on me. That the system has set me up to put my life on the line in order to experience the American dream. … I know what it’s like to put myself on the line for an institution or for a country that at times has not done it for me.”
Like an officer sizing up recruits, “The Inspection” peels back the myth of the American dream, exposing its dusty promises and flimsy construction. Just like a punishing drill sergeant, however, Bratton also sees potential in the flaws. He sees an opportunity that, for better or worse, is many people’s only chance at improving their lives.
“I understand how people can be critical of U.S. foreign policy, sure,” he said. “But when it comes down to it, the same people who are critical of that foreign policy also claim to be on the sides of poor people. And if you’re on the sides of poor people, then you understand that people are fighting and scrapping to live out here. If that’s the case, who am I to judge how they get their pound of flesh?”
A24 releases “The Inspection” in select theaters on Friday, November 18.