Director finds some closure through a film based on his life
“Wow! Back in Jersey,” director Elegance Bratton said. “Every time I think I'm out of here you guys pull me back in.”
Bratton attended the Montclair Film Festival on Saturday for a screening of his movie “The Inspection” and a Q&A session. At the festival, he was presented with the award for Breakthrough Director and Writer.
Bratton, a Jersey City native, showcased his debut feature film, which is based on his life. In the movie, Ellis French, played by Jeremy Pope, enlists in the U.S. Marines to prove himself to his mother, Inez French, portrayed by Gabrielle Union.
Ellis French, who is gay and homeless, faces hardships as he goes through training. At one point he nearly drowns, and at another he has a physical altercation with other recruits. The film is already being talked about as an Oscar contender.
The film was shot over the course of 19 days in Jackson, Mississippi, on a police academy base. Though the movie is based on Bratton’s life and his complicated relationship with his homophobic mother, he still dedicated the film to her. His mother never got to experience his “poetic emotional experience” in the film due to her death three days after the film was approved to start production.
Despite this, Bratton says Union’s portrayal of his mother provided him with a means to heal from their tumultuous relationship.
“I'm very grateful to Gabrielle Union for bringing my mother back to life,” he said. “And giving me an opportunity to find a bit of closure that, unfortunately, time didn't allow my mother to have.”
At the end of the movie the final line that Union’s character speaks can leave audience members shaken. In a conversation that feels as if his mother would finally accept her son, she instead coldly tells him, “I love you but I can’t love who you are” after Pope’s character refuses to denounce his sexuality.
Despite the story line of a young man’s struggle for his mother’s love and ultimately never receiving it, Bratton still urges the audience to have compassion for Union's character. He said he wanted viewers to understand that this is a “nonjudgmental film.” It was important to him that Union’s character not be judged for her homophobia.
“This is my story,” Bratton said. “I was thrown out of my house when I was 16 years old for being gay. I spent the next 10 years homeless. When I joined the Marines, I thought I was completely worthless. I thought my life had no meaning.”
Though the U.S. military had a “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy that forced members of the LGBTQ+ community to hide their sexuality or face the risk of expulsion until 2011, Bratton said his time as a Marine was valuable as a young gay man searching for validation.
“And then I was fortunate enough to have a drill instructor remind me that my value is high because I have the ability to protect the Marine to my left and to my right,” he said. “This is why I made the film.”
He added: “This movie is for anyone who's ever felt downtrodden. Anyone who's ever been underlooked and undervalued and anyone who understands and is moved by the unbreakable bond between mothers and sons.”
Bratton’s time in the Marines not only catapulted him toward self-acceptance, it also helped develop his love for film. After enlisting in 2005, he served as a combat camera production specialist in Hawaii.
When he was discharged from the Marines in 2010, he received his bachelor's degree in African American studies from Columbia University. After graduation he went on to receive his MFA in directing and writing from New York University Tisch School of the Arts.
He has dedicated himself to telling stories like his own; “The Inspection '' is not the first film in which Bratton has given a platform to underrepresented voices and harsh plights.
His first short film, “Walk for Me,” follows a young trans girl finding her identity through the ballroom scene, a form of pageantry that those in the LGBTQ+ community participate in through forms of dancing and fashion.
In Bratton’s first documentary, “Pier Kids,” his subjects are three teenagers who are Black, queer and homeless.
With a movie like “The Inspection,'' he was able to culminate those stories of finding and accepting identity.
Bratton encourages viewers to find their community through his films.
“I hope that by the end of this viewing experience,” he said, “you're reminded that your power lies in your ability to protect one another.”