Elegance Bratton didn’t spend the past six years bringing his life story to the big screen to earn sympathy. Rather, he wants to empower others.
While his autobiographical drama The Inspection is deeply personal, it touches on themes of acceptance and self-esteem that Bratton hopes will resonate universally. The film earned acclaim during its local premiere as part of the Dallas International Film Festival and will open in theaters this week.
“This movie is for anyone who’s ever felt disregarded, downtrodden, or ignored — to know that they really are enough,” Bratton said. “It’s a story about a young man who’s willing to endure any trial just to win back his mother’s love, but ultimately learns through that hellish process, how to respect and love himself.”
In the film, Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) is a Black gay man living on the streets because he’s been rejected by his mother (Gabrielle Union) for his sexuality. So he enlists for the Marines to prove his worth, to her and to himself, only to endure relentless boot-camp hazing — amid an environment of intolerance and macho masculinity — that escalates once his secret is discovered.
“By the time I joined the Marine Corps, I truly believed that I was worthless, and that my life had no value or meaning,” said Bratton, who was homeless from ages 16 to 25. “I feel very much reborn into my dreams, and I’m extremely grateful for the support the film has garnered.”
While some of the details are embellished, Bratton said the story is fully autobiographical in terms of the character’s “hopes, fears, desires, and motivations.”
Bratton’s stint in the military came during the height of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which mostly forced him to serve in silence. But he was inspired by the transformational message of accountability and brotherhood.
In making his first narrative feature after the 2019 documentary Pier Kids, he found a kinship with Pope (One Night in Miami), an award-winning Broadway actor in his first starring role on the big screen.
“It’s very rare that Black queer men get to be the hero. Most times we’re accessories to the lead. There are real consequences to that. We absolutely need to see ourselves on screen,” Bratton said. “It was important to me to have somebody who lives the same truth that I live in and millions of other people around the world live in, so the next generation can see themselves as heroes.”
In addition to the emotional hurdles of making such a personal debut film, Bratton suffered a deeper setback when his mother died just a few days after the project received the green light for production in Mississippi.
“Everyone worked so well to create a safe space for me. I was very deep into the grieving process while making this film,” he said. “Jeremy made space for that grief and allowed me to use it as motivation to inform Ellis French. He’s inspired by my experiences, but Ellis French is a way more heroic version of myself.”
Raul Castillo (Army of the Dead) plays a compassionate drill instructor who becomes a confidant for Ellis. He connected to the story’s themes of belonging after growing up in McAllen, near the Mexican border.
“You don’t see masculinity depicted like this every day. I was really moved by French’s story, first and foremost,” Castillo said. “I’ve felt disregarded and unseen. Had I seen this film when I was 16 years old in south Texas, I would have been really inspired. It’s about someone overcoming the odds, and that’s universal.”
Completing The Inspection required Bratton to revisit some dark times in his life, but he’s grateful for the experience, and hopeful that it will find a wide audience.
“I have done a lot of self-care to be able to go through this process. If anything, the movie is a celebration of how far I’ve come,” Bratton said. “I hope what people find inspirational is the notion that although we all face great adversity in becoming ourselves, that we also have within ourselves the ability to triumph over adversity.”