Gay writer and director Elegance Bratton has come a long way after growing up in New Jersey and being unhoused for 10 years. He eventually joined the Marine Corps, which led to his becoming the filmmaker he is today.
His past work includes a documentary called Pier Kids following three queer people of color on the Christopher Street Pier in Manhattan, and a reality series about ball culture in New York City.
Bratton's narrative directorial debut The Inspection centers on a gay Black man named Ellis French, played by Jeremy Pope, who joins the Marines to change his life.
The talented director met up to discuss his film while visiting the Windy City at TheWit Hotel Chicago recently.
Windy City Times: First off, congratulations on receiving the Social Justice Award from the recent Critics Choice Association's Celebration of Black Cinema and Television.
Elegance Bratton: Thank you. Every second of this has been surreal and from hard work. I never worked towards the goal of having an awards contender. I just wanted to get it done and now that it is, I'm like Alice in Wonderland stepping through the Looking-Glass.
These are moments I have fantasized about in the past that are finally happening in real life. Am I awake? I am pinching myself!
WCT: Elegance is your birth name?
EB: Yes. My mother claimed that when I was born I was smacked on the rear, but instead of crying, I gasped back at her. She thought it was the most elegant thing she had ever heard so she named me Elegance.
WCT: Have you met another person named Elegance?
EB: I have met two. When I was making this film in Mississippi, she was my waitress, and there was another one who was a woman from Harlem that a friend of mine photographed.
WCT: Was your mother similar to Gabrielle Union, who played Inez French in The Inspection?
EB: Quite similar. When we played the movie in New Jersey, my dad, who has mostly been estranged from me my whole life, showed up to watch The Inspection. He was broken to bits because the way that Gabby is styled in the film is reminiscent of when they were together.
It shattered him. He didn't know what to say or what to do. So yes, she is very much modeled after my mother.
WCT: What was the hardest scene emotionally for you to film?
EB: The hallway scene at the end was pretty tough, because I grew up being told everything that she said in that hallway, just like in my house. It felt true and it took a very long time for me to get those words from her voice, saying that to me, out of my head. I used to listen to those words every day. To be onset and invoke it was quite difficult for me.
This film's beauty is that it proves I have gotten through it. When the day was over I went back to my hotel for dinner and I was a director of an A24 film. I was no longer a homeless, gay teenager. It was hard to get to that point and I am emotional now just thinking about it [tears up].
WCT: I will say The Inspection meant a lot to me, personally and affected me more than other current gay films like The Policeman.
EB: Thank you.
WCT: The journey of the character begins with his personal struggles and was shot like an independent film, then moves into the Marines training camp, which was such a big change cinematically. Can you talk about that?
EB: From a cinematic point of view "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" may have gotten its name in the '90s but in actuality, service members were suffering in silence for almost 80 years in total. As much as French is based on me, he's not me. He could never just be me. He represents all of those queer service members, such as trans people, lesbians and gays who went through so much to make space for someone like me.
With the camera, it is French's point of view, but when you see French move away from his world it is a military action film. It is like Full Metal Jacket or An Officer and a Gentleman. That was all intentional. I wanted to create a visual language that could suggest the shaky ground that those queer troops sat on for almost 80 years.
I am so moved that you were moved because I really wanted to put this statement out there for everybody and for us, because we don't get enough affirmation that we matter.
WCT: Well, now I am going to get emotional. So many times I have tried to fit into the straight world and after seeing your film I thought about how that is impossible because we have different experiences than straight people. It resonated with me because straight people are not bullied the same as us.
EB: I grew up being bullied in my house and then having my ass kicked by a neighbor. When I joined the Marine Corps I finally felt empowered and was finally able to defend myself. I knew for the rest of my life no one would be able to put their hands on me after that again. I am so grateful for that.
WCT: What was there about Jeremy Pope that made you want to him play this important role in The Inspection?
EB: First of all, it was always Jeremy's part before Jeremy even knew that this script existed. There are many things such as him being a phenomenally talented actor; even without The Inspection, his resume is formidable. It was important to me that he was an out, Black, queer actor.
Black, gay men like me don't get to be the heroes in movies. We are often the accessory to the hero. As a result, I spent a lot of my life looking for myself and examples of how to exist in the world. My whole existence of trying to fit in has been a Frankensteinian assemblage of Beyonce choreography, Oscar Wilde quotes and Karl Lagerfeld using chopsticks!
We are in a moment now when one out of two Black, gay men are HIV positive and eight times more likely to be homeless and commit suicide. We need to see ourselves as heroes that triumph. Every human being will go through Hell to be themselves, but if you are Black and gay Hell is massive.
It had to be Jeremy Pope. I didn't want another generation to piece themselves together in the media. It is not about him being afraid of his sexuality. He knows who he is. The question is, "How do I be a Black, gay man who survives and thrives in this world?"
WCT: There was one moment in The Inspection when I noticed Jeremy moving a certain way that showed he was gay. To me, that is why a gay person in real life should play a gay role because a straight performer would just be mimicking being gay and couldn't be authentic.
EB: We talked about that the whole time. I wonder what it would have been like as teenagers to have a movie like this.
WCT: I have interviewed Raul Castillo in the past, who plays Laurence Harvey in The Inspection. What was it like working with him?
EB: He was a sweetheart and a teddy bear. His fiancé calls him a "bear tiger," which is funny because that juxtaposition of qualities is why it had to be his part. I wanted him to play it from the first draft. I even snuck into a party at Tribeca Film Festival to meet him so I could tell him about the movie back in 2018.
WCT: That was brave.
EB: I was trying to get it done! [laughs] I love working with him because he reminds me of Marlon Brando a little bit. There is an austerity to him that people will think he's serious when he's not serious, but there is also a softness in his character. He's a nurturer first and a drill instructor second. I couldn't think of anyone else that could embody that character more.
WCT: What did you take away from your project Pier Kids that you brought into The Inspection?
EB: Everything. The way I work with actors is very much informed by what I learned from making Pier Kids. The concept of consent and collaborating on set. I didn't come from a filmmaking background where I could boss someone around to go do something.
I didn't call people in the documentary "subjects" because that felt disrespectful. Having sensitivity training on that film has made me a consensus kind of director.
There is nudity and violence in The Inspection that is beyond what is happening on camera. We had a very diverse cast and many queer people in the crew. There were some that had gone through domestic violence in their lives. When we shot the shower scene, I started with a speech about how triggering it might be for everyone including myself. I told them they were welcome to go outside and take a break. I told them if they needed to cry that it was okay.
I learned all that from making Pier Kids. I wanted them to be vulnerable and open their hearts. The goal was to make this like a family instead of a working relationship.
WCT: I love that. What are you working on next?
EB: I have a feature-length documentary that I am finishing up called Hell Fighter. It is about James Reese Europe, the forgotten civil rights icon from the early 20th century. He was the first Black man to lead a show at Carnegie Hall, and also the first Black Man to serve as an officer in an international war in the United States as a lieutenant for the 369th Infantry Regiment. They called them The Harlem Hellfighters. He brought ragtime music to France and additionally practically invented Afro-Latin jazz.
He had a major thumbprint in the first 20 years of the 20th century. Unfortunately, he died tragically. I am looking at this through the lens of W. E. B. Du Bois' notion of double consciousness and what it means for the first generation of Black folks after slavery to achieve wealth.
WCT: It is so important to have stories like this out there because people like me were not taught Black history in school growing up.
EB: I wasn't taught it either. That is my mission as a filmmaker is to take the audiences to places they could never go without me. This is one of those stories where when I heard about James Reese Europe's story I instantly became fascinated and was determined to make it!
The Inspection opens in select cities Nov. 18 and in Chicago theaters Nov. 23.