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'The Inspection' highlights a gay Black Marine's experience under 'don't ask, don't tell'

Elegance Bratton’s new film, “The Inspection,” stars Jeremy Pope as a gay Black Marine and Gabrielle Union as his homophobic mother.
Jeremy Pope in "The Inspection."
Jeremy Pope in "The Inspection."A24

Multihyphenate filmmaker Elegance Bratton said his latest project, “The Inspection,” about a gay homeless Black man who joins the Marines, hits especially close to home after he was kicked out as a teenager for being gay and spent a decade living on the streets. 

“I said a prayer 20 years ago, that my life would turn from survival to thriving,” Bratton said. “I had no idea in that moment that God had said yes.” 

After years of homelessness, Bratton said joining the Marines helped him find a sense of purpose. Now, the director hopes “The Inspection,” which is set to be released in theaters Friday, can inspire others who feel overlooked in their lives. 

“I wanted to make a film that could remind those folks that you matter, that you have within you the light to triumph over great adversity,” Bratton said. 

The theatrical release comes after the project appeared last month at New York’s premier LGBTQ film festival, NewFest. The film, which is loosely based on Bratton’s life, focuses on the challenges the main character, Ellis French, experiences as a young gay Black man during the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” era. The policy, which was in effect between 1994 and 2011, banned gay and lesbian service members from serving openly in the armed forces. The project features Emmy-nominated actor Jeremy Pope as Ellis French, Gabrielle Union as French’s mother and Raúl Castillo as drill sergeant Rosales.

“This is really about just one man’s desire … and eternal need for his mother’s love, and he’s willing to do anything, even go to the most hostile place” to get it, Bratton said. “In the process, he gets to understand himself, and by understanding himself, he’s able to change and impact this … rigid world around him.”

Throughout the film, French yearns for his mother’s acceptance of his sexuality. During his time in the military, he works to build friendships, but faces a spate of anti-LGBTQ attacks during bootcamp training, including being brutally beaten by other service members. Bratton said the Marines portrayed in the film are held to “a standard of masculinity that is both at once impossible and also oppressive.” A 'complicated sense of pride'

Similar to French, Bratton also shared a fraught relationship with his late mother, Inell, who rejected him because of his sexuality. In 2020, Bratton said, his mother was killed just days after the film was approved for production, according to a recent Q&A about the film. Still, Bratton said if his mother were alive today, she would be proud of his accomplishments. 

“She will probably be mad at me for putting our family business out in public,” Bratton said. “But, then also gagged that Gabrielle Union is her, and she will probably be like, ‘That movie don’t make no sense, but he’s right — Gabrielle Union sure does look like me.’” 

He added, “I can see her having a very complicated sense of pride over all of this, even if it didn’t move her to change her stance around homosexuality.”

Gabrielle Union and Jeremy Pope in "The Inspection."
Gabrielle Union and Jeremy Pope in "The Inspection."A24

Bratton said he tapped Union for the role of his homophobic mother because of Union’s “artistry, activism, and she’s also a superstar that everyone in the world knows.” Union, as a decorated actor and LGBTQ advocate, and her husband, former NBA star Dwyane Wade, are known for their public support of their transgender daughter, Zaya Wade.

However, in describing his tumultuous family life, Bratton recalled the time his mother invited him to film his sister’s school graduation. However, when Bratton arrived, no one knew he existed, he said.

“No one in her graduation even knew that she had a brother, not her teacher, not her classmates,” Bratton said. “I was very upset, extremely upset, feeling erased. … I resolved at that moment that I was going to become a filmmaker, and I was going to be impossible to avoid.” 

“You’re going to see my name on TV, your friends are going to come to you and tell you about what I do and ask you, ‘Is this person related to you?’ I knew that I had to have somebody that my mother would know,” Bratton added about his decision to cast Union. 

Prior to “The Inspection,” Bratton directed other LGBTQ projects, including the 2019 documentary “Pier Kids,” about queer and transgender youths living at Manhattan’s Christopher Street Pier.

Bratton described Union as a dedicated ally for the LGBTQ community — who revived his mom for the world to see. 

“I couldn’t think of anyone better. I am so grateful to her, because she brought my mom back to life,” he said. “And helped me find the closure that I didn’t even know I needed.”

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