How 'The Inspection' tells the incredible story of a gay man's experience in the Marines during 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Gabrielle Union and Jeremy Pope in
Gabrielle Union and Jeremy Pope in The Inspection. (Photo: A24 Films)

There are upwards of 18 million military veterans in the United States, and each one of them has their own unique story of what inspired them to enlist.

Elegance Bratton’s has to be among the most incredible.

The Jersey City, N.J native was kicked out of his house at 16 for being gay and was homeless for 10 years. Then, in a desperate bid to finally win the approval of his correctional-officer mother, he joined the Marines.

“My mother always kind of made me feel as though I was worthless because I was gay, and then I became homeless,” Bratton told Yahoo Entertainment during an interview for his powerful new film The Inspection, which the veteran and filmmaker wrote and directed about his true-life journey in the service during the military’s controversial "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" era.

“So I felt like the world proved to me that she was right. And then I joined the Marine Corps and I found out that my value was determined by my ability to protect the Marine to my left. And that was really, really empowering to me. It was the first time I ever felt like, not only did I have a purpose, but I had a place I belonged … So while it was difficult to relive some of this stuff, I've been emboldened by that purpose, to show audiences that your importance is determined by your ability to protect those around you.”

In The Inspection, Bratton’s alter-ego Ellis French is confidently played by Tony- and Emmy-nominated actor Jeremy Pope, best known for the television series Pose and Hollywood. Pope fondly remembers his introductory Zoom call with Bratton, in which they talked about what it meant to be artists, and what it meant to be Black and queer.

“And when I read that script, I wanted to hold Elegance,” Pope says. “I had so many questions, because I also knew that there's a cost at giving your truth away like this. Once you give something, you can't get it back … That's a very vulnerable, honest thing to do. But in connecting with him, I knew that I wanted to be the one to make space for him to do that, for him to heal. And ultimately, what I found is I was able to heal myself. I feel so much stronger by saying yes to this film and sharing this moment with Elegance.”

Director Elegance Bratton, from left, Gabrielle Union and Jeremy Pope arrive for the premiere of The Inspection at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. (Photo: GEOFF ROBINS/AFP via Getty Images)
Director Elegance Bratton, from left, Gabrielle Union and Jeremy Pope arrive for the premiere of The Inspection at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. (Photo: GEOFF ROBINS/AFP via Getty Images) (GEOFF ROBINS via Getty Images)

The film is also deeply personal for Gabrielle Union, who delivers a harrowing performance as Ellis’s harshly disapproving mother, Inez. Union and her husband, former NBA star Dwayne Wade, have become outspoken activists and supporters of the LGBTQ community since their teenage daughter Zaya came out as transgender in 2020.

“Initially it was like, ‘I live differently. What have I ever given off to make anyone think that I could pull this off convincingly?’” Union laughed. “And Elegance was just insistent that he had the confidence in me that he knew that I [was] the only one that could do this. And I just started to believe him. And then I started to do the work and, instead of judging my characters, which is what I normally do … I had to find the common ground with Inez. And that common ground is all of the things that we are willing to do in order to be seen, in order to move that much further ahead — for a check, for a relationship, for acceptance, validation for white supremacy. What are we willing to gamble with?"

Bratton, Pope and Union believe a film like The Inspection has the power to change hearts and minds when it comes to parents struggling to accept their LGBTQ children, comfort young gay people and beyond.

“This film exists for anyone who's ever felt downtrodden, who's ever felt overlooked, to see themself in Ellis and to say, ‘You know what? I have it in me to do better. Everybody who tells me I'm not worth anything, that's a lie,’” says Bratton. “Every good thought that you think about yourself, that's the truth.”

“For me, seeing is believing,” says Pope. “And what I hope that this gift that we've given in making this film is something that's tangible for people that have ever felt abandoned. And to know that there is healing and there is love on the other side, and that you are more than enough. So I do believe in my heart and in this truth that it will resonate with the people it's supposed to resonate with and ultimately change their outlook.”

Adds Union: “I think hurt people hurt people, and healed people have the ability to help heal other people. And I think some folks will walk in there as hurt people and they'll recognize themselves. They'll recognize how ugly and dark that behavior is and that they've been missing out on amazing people and a deeper, different kind of encompassing love. The love that they think that they can control by forcing their children and their family members to be whatever it is that they need them to be. Hopefully throughout the course of the film, they'll realize how ugly and unnecessary that behavior is, and start to release that hurt and move towards healing. It is possible. I've seen it. You just have to want to do different and wanna love differently and you have to know that you're really losing nothing in loving completely.”

The Inspection is now playing.