How ‘The Inspection’ Director Elegance Bratton Started His Career Making Movies in the Marines

This story about the filmmaker Elegance Bratton first appeared in the College Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Most students go to film school after becoming interested in cinema in grade school or high school. Elegance Bratton went there via the United States Marine Corps. Bratton, writer-director of the acclaimed drama “The Inspection,” was kicked out of his home by his mother at age 16 because he was gay. He joined the Marines in his mid-20s after spending years homeless on the street. (The story of his time in boot camp and his attempts to reconcile with his mother are fictionalized in “The Inspection,” which premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.)

While he’d never thought about film as a career because it seemed beyond the realm of possibility for a homeless kid in New Jersey, he did sometimes read books about film after he stole them and before he sold them. “I read Scorsese’s books and Spike Lee’s books,” he said. “And when my recruiter asked me if I ever thought about being a filmmaker, I said, ‘Well, I guess.’”

The question came because Bratton had scored well on a Marine Corps placement exam that suggested three potential jobs: military intelligence, journalist and filmmaker. He didn’t want to be a spy because, he said, “I’m not a snitch,” and he considered himself too biased to be a good journalist. But he said yes to filmmaking. “I had this very rudimentary idea of what a filmmaker was,” he said. “And in the recruiting book they showed a cool picture of a Marine hanging upside down from a helicopter with a camera.”

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The Marines taught him filmmaking, but only to a degree. “I did things like actuality films: How do you put this weapon together? How do you take it apart? And I recorded retirement ceremonies. I remember getting a call that the general at our base asked for me, so I went to his office and it was like “Dr. Strangelove”: He had a map of the entire world on his wall. He said, ‘Bratton, I wrote this script for my retirement. Do you have any notes?’ It was the only time in my life a straight white man had asked my advice about anything.”

When he got out of the military, Bratton went to Columbia University and got a degree in African American Studies — but while he was there, he also started making a documentary about the young, homeless LGBTQ community, “Pier Kids.” “That was the first time I started thinking about, how does the camera communicate perception and point of view?” he said. “How does the camera make you empathize with someone?”

While editing “Pier Kids,” he also decided to apply to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. By that point, he had watched movies incessantly while working at a Blockbuster video store. “I had a pretty sure idea of what I liked in movies,” he said. “But Tisch was good for showing that filmmaking’s a collaborative art. That was the first time I ever had a cinematographer, a sound person, a gaffer… And it taught me how to exist as myself in this system.”

That final lesson, though, didn’t always come easily. “I was making movies about trans people, about Black people, about queer people, and at that moment it wasn’t popular,” he said. “Some people there thought that movies about people like that would never go anywhere.” He wrote the first draft of “The Inspection” while at NYU and also learned by watching the acclaimed filmmakers who taught at the school. “When I was in film school, you couldn’t have told me that I wasn’t successful,” he said. “So I thought, I’m gonna look at every successful director in this place and act like them.”

And now, as he reads the rave reviews of “The Inspection” (TheWrap said it “has the trappings of an instant queer classic”) and awaits its November release by A24, Bratton feels both embraced and empowered. “I was in a homeless shelter 20 years ago,” he said. “To get to this space, I’ve had to dream big. And now I want to dream bigger.”

Read more from the College Issue here.

Matt Sayles for TheWrap
Matt Sayles for TheWrap