Few of this year’s debut features feel as achingly personal as “The Inspection,” in which writer/director Elegance Bratton chronicles his own story of how his service in the Marine Corps brought him self acceptance. It’s a gift he had never received from his mother, who rejected him upon discovering that he was gay. Jeremy Pope, who received an Emmy nomination for Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series, “Hollywood,” delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Ellis French, a character modeled after Bratton’s younger self, while “Bring It On” star Gabrielle Union is a revelation as his estranged mother, Inez.
The uniformly superb ensemble is led by Bokeem Woodbine, Raúl Castillo and McCaul Lombardi, while cinematographer Lachlan Milne (“Minari”) provides us with several unforgettable close-ups of his actors, particular Pope as he undergoes a spiritual transformation. The abusive treatment endured by Ellis makes this picture not an easy one to watch, but it proves to be an immensely rewarding one.
Prior to the film’s screening as part of this month’s Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago, Bratton spoke with RogerEbert.com about how he sought to capture the emotional truth of his experiences on film and the ways in which his strength ultimately comes from his mother.
To what extent is this film an accurate approximation of your life?
Well, I can say that the movie is one hundred percent autobiographical when it comes to the hopes, fears and desires of the lead character, even in the cases where it depicts a situation I haven’t been in. What I’ve learned from this experience of making “The Inspection” is that the autobiographical film is not a process of recollection and staging so much as it is about the essence of emotional truth. You don’t simply write down what happened to you, get a camera and shoot it. In that regard, everything between the mother and the son is 100% out of my life, however the scenarios themselves are definitely impacted by the craft of filmmaking. It’s not just that my mother said horrible things to me, it’s when she said them. To be honest with you, when my mom initially said to me, “I can’t love what you are,” I didn’t have filmmaking or the Marine Corps in my life yet. I didn’t know that I would have the camera and lights and marks and actors to be able to inhabit what it felt like in my soul to hear those words.
When I joined the Marine Corps, I thought I was absolutely worthless. I was kicked out of my house for being gay and I can’t overstate how difficult it was to start my adult life, which is such an essential part of who I am. At the time, I felt that it was my fault that I ended up on the streets. I thought that if I had just tried harder to be different or I had avoided being sexual that this wouldn’t have happened. I could’ve finished college and I could’ve gotten a car. So many times I had those thoughts. Then I joined the Marine Corps and I had a drill instructor tell me that, “Actually, your life is important. You are valuable because you have the ability to protect the Marine to your left and to your right.”
That was a transformational notion to me, and I ran with it because it was literally the first time in my life that an authority figure had ever said to me, “You know what, you’ve got something, kid.” That’s why I made the movie because I feel like we are at a moment where things are very polarized, whether it’s left and right, gay and straight or Black and white. Everybody is screaming at each other across their differences. The Marine Corps is where I learned how to talk to people who were different from me. We had this understanding that I can only go as far as we can go together because we need each other to survive this. As a Black gay kid, I found a middle ground with so many people who I never thought I would see eye to eye with, and they are now some of my closest friends because of that experience. I felt that was valuable right now to the world, and that’s why I made the film.
Would you say that you had strength embedded within you that you didn’t realize you had prior to the military?
Yes. This isn’t a movie about someone questioning whether or not they are gay. It’s about someone who knows that he is gay and Black and is wondering where he fits in the world. How does he actually interact with this world and get out of a survival system into a thriving system? It is so complicated to talk about my mom, but she is where my strength comes from. My mother had me when she was sixteen years old, and she was an orphan by the time she was ten. She was the first person to ever love me completely and the first person to ever reject me wholly. We grew up together, so much so that people thought we were brother and sister. I watched her get up every day and navigate being a Black single teenage mom during the '80s Reagan era with all the welfare queen demagoguery stuff going on in the zeitgeist. She used to tell me every morning before I went to school, “Be a credit to your race.” When we were on welfare, she’d say to me, “We come from good stock. Don’t let people make you feel like you’re not because you are.” And she was also the same person who would beat me for being gay.
But that’s where my strength comes from. It comes from watching my mom and I think what the Marine Corps taught me is how to harness that strength. There’s something about the psychology of the escalation of force that really helped me understand how to harness what I was born with and how to hold yourself together rather than fall apart. Ultimately, when it comes to strength, here’s what I’ve realized through this process of making “The Inspection” and why this movie had to come out in the world for me right now. I was raised to believe that being a man meant that you had to be strong and that forgiveness was somehow not masculine, therefore not strong. In this movie, Ellis is learning how to forgive in real time and how not to give up on people. His strength is in that forgiveness. If I had held onto everything that happened, I wouldn’t be here. I would be upset somewhere in a bar, mad at the world.
What was the challenge in gauging the emotional tone of the film’s final moments, which sidestep the tendency of filmmakers who—when helming a personal project—attempt to give themselves the catharsis they couldn’t receive in their own lives?
Well, first of all, it’s true that it was out of my life. My mother said those words to me more than a few times throughout the years, including right before she passed. There’s definitely a draft of this script where Ellis and Inez did make up, but after I had that conversation with my mother, I realized that’s not what I needed from this movie. In terms of gauging the tone, I think a big tool that I like to use as a filmmaker is misdirection. In this film, we are gearing up for the moment when Ellis’ mother finally accepts him.
And we’ve seen that in so many movies, where the mother arrives at her child’s graduation for the sentimental finale.
Yes! [laughs] When it comes down to it, though, people are a lot less predictable and a lot messier than they are in movies. The misdirect here is that it was never about his mother. That’s the thing I learned. If there’s anything that I want people who have been through domestic violence and parental abuse and things like that to understand is that it’s not you, it’s them. You’re fine, you can love yourself. Just because someone did something bad to you doesn’t mean that you deserved it, and I’m still processing that. I’m definitely much better than I was with it, but I have to remind myself every day that it wasn’t my fault. Another message of this film is you can’t do for others what you haven’t been taught and what hasn’t been done for you. No one ever gave Inez the unconditional love that Ellis is looking for, so when she says, “I can’t love you,” in my mind, the subtext is, “I don’t know how.” Once that Marine comes up to Ellis and says, “Thank you for your service,” he has learned how to love himself even though she didn’t know how to act on that love that she had. He learned how by enduring this process and never giving in to the pressure to hide himself.
What quality did Jeremy Pope have that made you realize he was the right actor for this role?
Oh my god, I love this man. Every day with Jeremy is a surprise became he is an agile talent, so working with him was an embarrassment of riches. We shot the film in the summer in Mississippi, and though we were promised 23 days, we ended up shooting it in 19 because we lost four days due to Covid. So Jeremy was on his toes because he had to be, and he kept coming up with something every time. Beyond that, it was always his part. When I wrote the first draft of this in 2017, I put together my little wish list of all the actors I would cast in each role, and Jeremy, Gabrielle and Raúl were all at the top of that list. One part of why I wanted to cast Jeremy is his resume. For such a young, relatively new actor, his accomplishments are quite formidable. Secondly, it was about authentic representation.
As a Black gay man who has loved movies and TV my whole life, I haven’t seen Black gay people as the heroes of films at all, and as a result, I’ve had to kind of create this Frankenstein-esque assemblage of who I am. It’s a little bit of Karl Lagerfeld, a little bit of Beyoncé choreography and a bit of RuPaul attitude. Whenever you see little glimpses of yourself, you take all those bits and form it together. Jeremy and I would talk on the set quite often about what it would’ve meant to us as teenagers to have had a character like Ellis French to identify with, because I, for one, believe that people go to the movies to see themselves. If you’re not onscreen ever, how does that not affirm a world where one out of every two Black gay men will be HIV positive in their lifetimes, eight times more likely to commit suicide and eight times more likely to be homeless? That lack of representation can be really detrimental to millions of people, and I hope Jeremy’s incredible arrival as this force in cinema will do the opposite.
A more escapist ending may have left audiences with life stories similar to your own feel even more alienated.
I think that every human being has to go through hell in order to be their true selves. When you throw on the identity qualifiers, whether it’s Black or gay or trans or what have you, it becomes that much harder. Through that last scene, I wanted to say, “Baby, you’re gonna go through hell to be you. It’s not gonna be easy to be you, but you can do it. You have it in you, you have greatness in you, you are enough.” This movie is for anybody who has ever been told that they are worthless, that they are not promised a future, that they are obsolete and that they don’t count. I want people by the end of this viewing experience to know that they are enough no matter what people are telling you, how they are treating you and making you feel like you’re lower. You’re enough, and that’s really the message that I want to get across in showing how the institution embraces and protects Ellis. The reality is that there’s not a lot of places in the world that one can be totally accepted, and I really believe that a chosen family is where you find it.
I’m curious about what inspired the shocking scene in which Ellis is nearly drowned in the pool.
I have definitely survived drowning more than once in my life. I’ll tell you a funny story. My mom had her moments when she was quite nice, and she saved up all this money for me to go to the Salvation Army summer camp for the first time. I was so excited but I didn’t know how to swim. She would work all day, so when I would wash myself, I would fill up the tub, put my little snorkel on and swim in the tub. I really thought that I was teaching myself how to swim. [laughs] Then I get to camp and they ask the kids, “Who here knows how to swim? Go to the deep end.” I jump off the deep end into the river and I wake up on the beach. I nearly drowned. That was the first time, and there were three other subsequent occasions in which that happened, so yes, I have a relationship with the water on a personal level.
When we were doing swim qualifications at boot camp, a kid who was a couple cycles before us had drowned in the pool and we only knew this because our drill instructor told us about it under the context of, “Don’t mess around because nobody will know what happened to you.” I knew he didn’t like me and I knew that he knew I was gay. I remember being on the bleachers as this speech was happening and thinking in the back of my mind, ‘Oh my god, I don’t know if I want to get in the water with him.’ Then I began looking around to see if there was anybody else I could go with. When it came time for me to make “The Inspection,” I knew that I didn’t have a limitless amount of budget, so I wanted to somehow portray the emotional essence of these two facts: 1.) That I have a perilous relationship with the water, and 2.) I had this experience with a drill instructor making a not-too-veiled threat that I took personally and felt like out of everybody in that group, I would be the one in danger because he had already been messing with me. So that’s where that scene comes from.
Did you and Gabrielle have a soul connection in light of her own activism for LGBTQ+ rights?
Yes, Gabby is an activist and a superstar, and she’s done such a good job of using her platform to bring light to those who aren’t typically seen. I was a combat filmmaker in Hawaii for a bunch of years, and then I got a chance to come to New York and be a Marine police officer. It was cool because I had my own apartment, so that whole idea of being on base and hiding things was no longer an issue. When I got back to New York, my mom said, “Oh, so you’re a filmmaker, huh? Why don’t you go buy a camera and shoot your little sister’s elementary school graduation?” And I did. I went out and bought a Sony PD150 as well as my first Apple desktop computer. But when I went to my sister’s graduation, none of her friends knew that she had a brother and none of my sister’s teachers knew that my mother had an elder son.
She had completely erased me from the whole town. It incensed me because I had done so much work dealing with what happened and now I realized that was not happening at all on my mom’s side. That’s the moment I resolved to be a filmmaker. I looked at my mom and thought, ‘You are not going to ignore me. You will see my posters in these theaters and you will see me on TV.’ My mother wouldn’t really answer my calls for the last fifteen years of her life, so I knew that if I cast a superstar like Gabrielle Union in my film, someone is gonna tell my mother and she would watch this movie. Maybe seeing herself onscreen would’ve caused a change in her and brought us back together. Until the day she died, I never gave up on the possibility of us reconciling. So Gabrielle’s celebrity has that function. The jewelry she wore in the film was my mother’s jewelry, the Bible she used is my mother’s Bible and I gave her my mother’s journals and pictures.
I was struck by the stacks of paper Inez has throughout her living space, even in her car.
I didn’t know my mom was a hoarder until she died. I always say that when people are living, you are juggling all of these spinning plates, and when you die, they all come crashing to the ground. If you’re lucky enough, you have people who love you who will put those pieces back together because they want to understand you for good. When I got to go back to her house, moving through that home was an experience of physical abuse. There was no space. Things were jutting out and poking you. You’re trying to find your room in it, and I realized, ‘Oh my god, this is what it was like growing up.’ I didn’t know what it was called when I was eight, nine, ten years old, but I do remember how before parent teacher conferences, I’d say to my mom, “Give me your purse. I am gonna get all this shit out of your purse,” because I was terribly embarrassed.
We were the only Black family in the town, and I was embarrassed that the white folks would see all of the things that she had in her purse. When she would go to work, sometimes her co-workers would throw out all this stuff behind her back and it would just inflame her. So again, it all comes back to the emotional truth of these memories rather than the precise recollection. To be honest with you, I didn’t really have a clear memory of these things because it was such a normal part of my life. But I remember going into that house after she died and that’s what I brought to this film. It’s an emotional recollection rather than a chronological one. It’s like when you go to a therapist and they connect the thing that happened to you at four to the thing that happened at fourteen and the thing that happened at forty. That’s really how this process worked in terms of excavating my life experience.
"The Inspection" opens on November 18th, only in theaters.