The first time I met Elegance Bratton, we were both at urinals, in a small Toronto bathroom with only two urinals, at a bar hosting the after-party for the premiere of Bratton’s feature length debut, The Inspection. I am not someone who enjoys bathroom conversation, but also we were the only two in there and it felt rude not to say something the director of the movie that the whole jamboree was in honor for in the first place. Look, if I’m Bratton, I’d be thinking, “Who is this prick at my party not giving me an accolade?” (Turns out I wasn’t far off.) So I start out by saying, “So, I’m not a bathroom talking guy…,” to with Bratton cuts me off, “This is isn’t the first time I’ve had a conversation with someone with his dick in his hand.” (For the record, this was not technically true. I have more of a hands-off approach to this process.)
Bratton’s film is semi-autobiographical about joining the United States Marine Corps after being homeless for ten years. Complicating this, Bratton is an openly gay man and, back then, we were very much in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” phase for gay people in the armed forces. Jeremy Pope plays Ellis French, who is not entirely Bratton, but large portions are. And what’s interesting is Bratton has a, let’s say, complicated relationship with the Marines. It’s still something that he’s pretty obviously proud of and admits he wouldn’t be where he is without that experience, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t times he was openly oppressed for his sexuality or even feared for his life. But the biggest surprose about The Inspection is the amount of humor in the film. As Bratton says, “If you’ve lived on the brink of tragedy and catastrophe the way I have, very quickly, the things that you cry about become the things that you laugh about.”
But, first, let’s clear up that whole bathroom situation.
We’ve actually met before…
I remember. Refresh me though. Where did we meet? Because you have a very much familiar face.
We met in the bathroom at your premiere party in Toronto. I think I said something like, “I am not a person who talks in bathrooms but wanted to tell you I liked your movie.” And I think you responded something along the lines of, “This is not the first time I’ve spoken to a man while he’s holding his penis.”
Yes, you did say dick. Which was not technically true, but we did meet in the bathroom.
I do remember that very well. This is why it’s dangerous for me to be in a room full of journalists and alcohol.
But going through my head, I’m thinking that you’re thinking, “This guy is at my party. I’m the only one in here. How does he not mention my movie?” Because if I’m you, that’s what I’m thinking.
I am thinking that. Okay, you’re 100 percent facts. You’re on target with that assessment. That’s exactly how I think.
Okay, so that was the correct action.
When I’m in awkward situation, I’m always going to find a way to make a joke. I just think it’s so funny, the way men talk in bathrooms to me is one of the funniest things in the world. It tickles me to no end. Yeah, I was just playing around.
Well, at least I had something real to say. It wasn’t, “Hey, pretty good weather today.”
“Man, that football game was great. They’re really playing well.”
Speaking of humor, I have to admit, before watching this, with the subject matter I thought this would be a tough sit. This movie is a lot funnier than I expected.
To be honest with you, if you’ve lived on the brink of tragedy and catastrophe the way I have, very quickly, the things that you cry about become the things that you laugh about. I think that that’s a really important part of healing. I think that movies are supposed to be aspirational. In this film there’s an aspiration to provide the audience with the feeling of transcendence, with the possibility of triumph. But you know, triumph doesn’t mean anything if there’s no adversity. If there’s enough adversity and significant enough triumph, it’s going to be pretty funny.
Well, so where does Ellis begin, and you end?
It’s not a Venn diagram, so I don’t know. I can’t necessarily give you a percentage exactly, but at the end of the day, the film is 100 percent autobiographical when it comes to his hopes, fears and desires, primary motivations. Even if it’s not a situation that I’ve been in. And when it’s the stuff with his mother, that stuff is 100 percent out of my life, literally.
Do you talk to anyone who’s still in the Marines?
Now, obviously, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” is gone. I’m curious what the culture is like for gay people now compared to when you were there?
Yeah, the thing is, the military is a microcosm of the United States. All the problems that we wrestle with in our day-to-day lives, political issues that we wrestle with are still a debate in our armed services and armed forces. But the thing is that we have a premise in the military where we have to protect each other, even if we disagree with each other because we are the thing that keeps us alive. That lesson – while people would not expect such a kind of egalitarian lesson to be taught in a place like the military, but nonetheless – I think it’s a lesson that’s very relevant for our times right now. That’s why the film exists.
What is your relationship with the military now? Because it seems very complicated. From watching this movie, it seems that it’s “complicated.”
The fact that it is, I joined the Marine Corps after ten years of being homeless. You’re chosen. It’s the few, the strong, right? But when I joined after being homeless, I thought I was worthless. I thought that my mother was right, that I deserved to be living this life of difficulty because I could not decide to not be a homosexual. I thought that there was no future for me. I was fortunate enough to have a drill instructor in bootcamp tell me the opposite. “Actually you are worth something because you have a responsibility to protect and serve other people, all these people here.” That responsibility was invigorating. It was life-changing to me because I had never been trusted like that. I had never been given the access to do something like that as a Black gay man.
What I’m saying, and when it comes down to it, I came into the Marine Corps and it gave me this sense of renewal and the possibility. I got my college education through it. Life is much, much more better for me. Nonetheless, I still had to deal with oppression. But there’s nothing harder and worse than being a homeless Black gay man in America. There’s nothing worse than that. I grew up in a world where I was met with rejection at every turn and violence at a lot of them. It’s normal for people like me to die young. But, all of a sudden, if you put a uniform on, now a Black gay life is implicated in the struggle of terrorism and things. Mind you, that’s true for every young man in this movie, right? That putting on the uniform elevates them into a cultural conversation. All of a sudden, people are concerned about the fate of poor people in America when they put on a uniform. I think that this film is not pro-military, it’s not anti-military. It’s nonjudgmental. It’s because it’s pro-proof.
I know I said this to you in the bathroom, but almost every character in this movie does something really mean to you, but also something really nice to you at different times.
That’s how family is. My mother is the first person to ever love me completely. She’s also the first person to reject me holistically. More than one thing can be true at once. That’s why I went in the Marine Corps, and that’s why I appreciate being a Marine. I appreciate it, because it was the only place that could not deny me.
Well, and you earned it, too. They don’t just hand that out. You had to earn that title.
Oh, it was tough. It was so intense, but it was so fun too. That’s the other thing. It’s like summer camp, jail. It’s all connected, like a fraternity all combined into one. It’s a lot of fun. You’re running, you’re getting stronger, you’re getting faster, you are getting to know people.
Me being named Elegance, every room I ever walked into in my life, everyone assumed I was gay. They’re right. A lot of times I wasn’t invited to fix the car and play ball and all that stuff that guys do together. Joining the Marine Corps, I finally found a group where I couldn’t be denied. If you deny me, then you may not make the mission and then we all get in trouble. This is why I appreciate it, but I’m also totally understanding of the critique of foreign policy and all that kind of stuff.
You mentioned the drill instructor and you just said a lot of positive things about the drill instructor. In the movie, at one point he tries to drown you.
When I went to boot camp, we were told a story by our drill instructor about someone who died in the pool not long before we were there. I knew that this guy knew that I was gay. I knew that this guy did not really like me. He didn’t see it for me. He thought I was too smart for school. In my head, as a person who’d been abused my whole life for being gay, and not just by my mother, but the world at large, I was worried. What happens if he tries to take this out on me in this water? That’s that fear is where that scene in the movie comes from. But just recently, when I was in Coronado, San Diego over the weekend for their film festival, they gave me the Trailblazer Award…
Thanks. But what somebody told me that a person died in training with the Navy Seals right before I got there, too. It’s like, this happens when you train in this way. It happens sometimes on purpose, sometimes not on purpose.
Something like that happens in An Officer and a Gentlemen…
I love that movie.
So, in real life, the drill instructor probably didn’t like you very much, but it never got as violent as it did in the movie?
It also didn’t get that sexual in real life. I don’t know what kind of publication this is. I don’t want to get too much detail.
I had my chance encounters, crossing in the night type of situations. I definitely had people of higher rank come on to me and things like that. I’m not the hero that Ellis is. I was trying not to go to the shelter by any means necessary. Even if you flirted with me, it would take a real, very specific situation for me to give into it. Nonetheless, I’m with these beautiful men, and mind you, Ellis comes in the Marine Corps through a transactional kind of understanding of love. To him nobody would care about him unless they wanted sex from him. That’s what he is, that’s what he has to offer.
I’m just curious, the real-life drill instructor… Are you expecting a phone call?
Oh, man, I am expecting several phone calls.
Oh, man, I would love that phone call. At the end of the day, some of them already seen it. They like it, so.
Hopefully, they’ll like it the next time. We’ll see. But, luckily, they may not have my new number.
Now you’ve got the Trailblazer Award, I bet they’re not going to get that number…
It was good to talk to you again.
I appreciate it. Well, hopefully, we’ll run into each other…
Not in the bathroom next time though.
‘The Inspection’ opens in theaters on Friday, November 18th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.