In his 20s, homeless and searching for a sense of self, Elegance Bratton enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was presented with three possible jobs: Intelligence ("I'm not a snitch"), journalism ("I didn't have it in me"), or combat filmmaking. He picked up a camera for the first time in the Marines and, after being honorably discharged, eventually enrolled in film school in New York.
Over the next decade, Bratton directed a number of short films that explore the Black, queer and trans experience. In 2021, he won Film Independent's Truer Than Fiction Award with his documentary, Pier Kids, about the homeless queer youth who call the Christopher Street Pier home. Still, he didn't initially conceive of telling his own life's story as a movie.
"Initially, I thought I was going to write an autobiography," he says. "I'm still going to write an autobiography, but I thought this would be in a book. Then I realized, 'Oh wait. People don't read books.'"
And so, he wrote The Inspection, about being kicked out of his mother's home at 16 for being gay, about navigating a decade of homelessness, about signing up for the Marines, about enduring boot camp in the era of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and about finding himself. And still, Bratton considered making his narrative feature debut with one of the other screenplays he'd written.
"I went to my partner, my husband Chester, who's with me the whole way through, and I said, 'Which one of these should I dedicate the next five years of my life to?' Because everybody who does a first feature, it takes them that long to do it," he recalls. "And they were like, 'The thing you do best as an artist is take the audience to a place they can't ever go without you. And your first feature should be intensely personal.' And The Inspection was it."
Below, Bratton shares with A.frame five films that made him into the filmmaker and artist he is today. "Hopefully I get to make another movie," he adds, "so I can do this question again and give you a different top five."
Directed by: Steven Spielberg | Written by: Melissa Mathison
I didn't get into movies through arthouse movies. I got into movies from big, huge-budget, mainstream, Spielberg, Zemeckis-type movies. In that regard, the first one that really hit me was E.T., because I was always the outsider in my family. I was a bookish, nerdy kid in a house by myself. My mom was a single parent, I was a latchkey kid, and the idea of wanting to go home was really something for me, too. My mom had me very young, so pretty much every year we moved to a new apartment until I was about 14 years old. I had a different school, different friends. So, that really resonated with me, amongst Bambi and stuff like that.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese | Written by: Paul Schrader
That was the movie that cracked my head open for the first time, that made me be like, 'Wow, I feel different, and I don't know why.' I had to have been about nine years old when I first saw Taxi Driver on cable. This is when cable was brand new, and before you could put parental locks on things. So, I just watched it all. I didn't even think about it. But that movie spoke to me because, as a latchkey kid, I was a really grown-up little kid. My mother would leave her checkbook behind and instructions of which bills to pay, how much change she expected back, and what food to buy. And I would go and do this stuff from the time I was five years old. I realize now the Jodie Foster character in Taxi Driver is why that movie resonated with me so much. Because she was a grown-up and a little girl at the same time, and I kind of felt that way.
Directed by: Douglas Sirk | Written by: Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott
That was a real transformational film for me, because I'm really wrapped up in questions of identity, and race, and gender. Even the storied history of how the movie comes together — Susan [Kohner], who plays Sarah Jane, she's a white woman playing a light-skinned Black woman, and it was a huge controversy in the '60s. I think it's so interesting, because the whole movie is about possibility and pretending, faking it until you make it. And then, you make it and you're not it. And all of those themes really resonate with me.
Directed by: Jennie Livingston
Paris Is Burning is almost like a part of my cinematic religion, I would say. I've actually had the chance to become friends with Jennie Livingston, and I'm still awkward around her. Sometimes I forget we're friends and I'm like, 'Oh my God, it's you!'
That movie was important to me because it was the first time I saw Black, queer people on-screen, and they weren't a joke. I remember Revenge of the Nerds had a Black gay character in it, but Lamar was the butt of every joke. If there was ever a moment in the movie where you needed levity, you could always count on him to swish into frame. And I love Lamar, but Paris is Burning was a real moment of pride for me as a young, Black gay kid. I'd just never seen anything like that before. And I saw it so young. I was probably 10 or 11 when I saw that movie for the first time, and I remember my mother kind of looking over my shoulder and being like, 'You can't watch that. Those people.'
The interesting thing is we're from Jersey City; so, I grew up driving over the bridge by Christopher Street Pier, and having my mom looking out the window at the trans women on the stroll, and the gays who were having their good times, and my mom would be like, 'Don't look at them. They're deviants. They're heathens. They're all going to go to Hell.' I remember her saying that to me and being so curious about them anyway. Then this film comes along and it was like, 'Oh, you made a movie, so I don't have to get my mom's permission.' So, I love that movie.
Directed by: Gillo Pontecorvo | Written by: Franco Solinas
Battle of Algiers is a phenomenal influence on me. It's like a foundational text of who I am as an artist. I personally have a thing called cinematic dyslexia where I don't see a difference between documentary and fiction film. I think they're two very different processes to get to the same result, which is a film. And Battle of Algiers is a movie that, at times, feels like a documentary, at times, it feels very much stylized and fictional. It's about a real moment in history, and a very powerful and interesting moment in history, the Algerian Revolution against French colonization.
I just love the movie. I wrote about it in undergrad a lot. What that movie gave me is, one of my goals is to place the viewer in the skin of another. I'm less concerned with characters that explain themselves and more concerned with throwing the audience into it as the character, and then, challenging the audience to say, 'You don't see yourself in a Black gay man? What does that say about you?' Battle of Algiers does a really good job of doing that type of work.