The Treat: ‘The Inspection’ director Elegance Bratton on Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja

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Elegance Bratton. Photo credit: Erik Umphery

Director Elegance Bratton’s first full-length feature is the drama “The Inspection,” inspired by his own experience as a queer man who goes from a period of homelessness to joining the Marines. Bratton takes inspiration from a painting called Portrait of Juan de Pareja by the Baroque Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. The painting, which dates back to 1650, sits in a permanent exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  

Velázquez is said to have painted the portrait of his enslaved assistant to prepare for his rendering of the Pope in Portrait of Innocent X

After de Pareja’s portrait was completed, he was emancipated and worked as an independent painter in Madrid. Bratton questions whether he contributed more to the painting than just sitting for it. 

Listen more: Director Elegance Bratton on putting his life on screen.

This segment has been edited for length and clarity. 

Some people consider [Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja] to be one of the greatest paintings of all time, and it's one of my favorites for sure. But what's interesting is that the slave that's being rendered is Velázquez's assistant. So there's always the question when I look at it, where it's like, “Did Velázquez paint this? Or did the enslaved guy paint this?” And if so, that means that he's actually one of the greatest painters of all time, that we've always had a great classical Black painter. We just never looked at it that way because his work was owned by his owner.

Retrato de Juan de Pareja by Diego Velázquez

[It] kinda reminds me of the 1930s version of “Imitation of Life.” The storyline is that the Black woman, the maid character, ends up coming up with a pancake recipe that's like really, really good [and which] her employer, this white actress who goes from being washed up to being a big star, ends up co-opting from her and selling this pancake recipe and getting rich. 

When we're trafficking ideas, oftentimes the benefit is kind of in the order of operations: whoever does which part of the process first gets the credit, even though many other people [are responsible], like Andy Warhol's Factory. So all that to say, this painting … kind of presages the notions that someone like an Andy Warhol introduces later in the 20th century. 

Did Juan paint it? Because if Juan painted it, then I'm looking at Velázquez’s whole oeuvre [in] a different way, because that means he's painting all of them. So, yes, that's one of my favorite things in the world.



Rebecca Mooney