'The Inspection' - Elegance Bratton's gay military drama

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday November 29, 2022
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Jeremy Pope and Raúl Castillo in 'The Inspection' (photo: Patti Perret/A24 Films)
Jeremy Pope and Raúl Castillo in 'The Inspection' (photo: Patti Perret/A24 Films)

The experience of being Black and gay has only rarely been portrayed in narrative films like "Moonlight" and "Pariah," but we have an exciting new entry in "The Inspection," (A24 Films) gay writer and director Elegance Bratton's fictionalized reminiscence of his entry into the Marines, after surviving the near-death trauma known as Boot Camp.

Bratton's journey from self-rejection to acceptance, through his cinematic alter ego Ellis French, echoes the healing path of gay African-Americans' refusal to abandon their own truth and what makes them unique by embracing who they are in art and life.

At 25, after almost a decade living homeless on the streets, Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) craving stability, decides to enlist in the Marines. He visits his mother (Gabrielle Union), a New Jersey corrections officer, to ask for his birth certificate. She kicked him out of the house at age 16 when he told her he was gay. With a cross on the wall and Christian radio playing in the background, we know the reason for her intolerance. She reluctantly gives him the certificate, telling him if he still comes back gay, he can consider it revoked. He desperately wants her approval, one of his motivations for joining the Marines.

It is 2005 when the U.S. was fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq to fight post-9/11 terrorism and Don't Ask, Don't Tell was still being enforced by the military.

At boot camp as a recruit, his drill Sgt. Laws (Bokeem Woodbine) on the first day declares, "I hate recruits but I love Marines," with bullying, verbal abuse, and sadism his stock in trade. "I will break you, I promise...I will be the nightmare that keeps you from closing your eyes at night." They are ordered never to use the word I when referring to themselves and are subject to regular repeated humiliations.

French does well, becoming head of his class. But getting a boner while fantasizing during a communal shower results in a vicious beating as well as the enmity of Laws, now keen to force him out of the Marines. He's virtually quarantined from his fellow recruits. In one harrowing incident he's almost deliberately drowned in a training exercise.

He finds a sympathetic ally in Rosales (Raul Castillo), an officer who is closeted. French develops a crush on him. He befriends fellow recruit Ismail (Eman Esfandi), a Muslim also mercilessly discriminated against and ridiculed. Will French survive and graduate?

Gabrielle Union and Jeremy Pope in 'The Inspection'  

Tender cruelty
Towards the beginning of "The Inspection" we wonder which emotional abuse is more cruel, his mother or the military? Yet it's not a stretch to see the film as a love letter to the Marines who turn recruits into lean mean fighting machines, so they can "protect the person to your left and to your right."

What does emerge, despite differences in beliefs and personal opinions, are soldiers bonding in a disparate community who learn to work together, because their very lives depend on creating solidarity in an unexpected tender brotherhood, which has homoerotic overtones.

The fascinating question posed by the film is how does one forge an identity when the institution itself is so determined to strip away any personal selfhood from its enlistees? The tentative answer is that the process forces them to harness reserves of strength they didn't know they possessed so it's in the perseverance —to push oneself beyond one's limits— rather than quitting, that becomes the building block for a new persona.

French is resolved to prove he's stronger than his demons, that by enduring the abuse he suffers, he will develop the resilience he needs to succeed. Also through the Marines, French discovers his career in photography and filmmaking.

Pain mutated
Jeremy Pope, best known to LGBTQ audiences for his Emmy-nominated gay screenwriter in Ryan Murphy's post-World War II fantasia in Netflix's "Hollywood," here, in his film debut, gives a stupendous star-making performance that with any justice should net him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Pope accomplishes much of his acting with his expressive eyes, conveying both vulnerability and steely determination after years of keeping his guard up to protect himself.

He brilliantly conveys how Pope retains his humanity and compassion without breaking his spirit, so the audience is empathetic towards him from the start. His is a study in how pain mutates into inner strength. Pope makes us understand why it was essential an openly gay actor play this role. It is the best queer performance of the year.

Jeremy Pope in 'The Inspection'  

However, Pope is matched in the electrifying career-best performance of Union, who in real life has a trans daughter and is an LGBTQ ally/activist. She is a powder keg who can explode at a moment's notice rendering her scenes with Pope unpredictable and chilling. He can stand up to her only harboring the probably false hope she will change. She's bitterly disappointed and scornful, not only with her son, but how her life has panned out. She's a likely Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee.

Woodbine, commanding in his recreation of Lou Gossett's Oscar-winning drill sergeant in "An Officer and a Gentleman," is a case study perhaps in repressed homosexuality (Why is he so fixated on French?) but in a personally satisfying, terrifying brutality. Finally, Castillo shows tortured ambivalence in wanting to express his desires, yet is hampered by his sense of duty and conformity to his family and the Marines.

The superlative acting helps to compensate for the glaring deficiencies in the script, because besides French and his mother, there is little development of the characters, especially his fellow recruits. For example, we learn nothing about Ismail except that he's Muslim nor why he decided to join the Marines.

Also, there's little criticism of a homophobic and misogynistic institution nor why the system allows such dehumanizing, grueling savagery. Yes, DADT is now history, but that doesn't excuse the prejudice that destroyed so many worthwhile careers, in the name of conformity.

Still "The Inspection" is an auspicious debut for Bratton, whom we salute for his willingness to reveal so much of his personal struggle with internalized shame about being gay, rarely essayed through the eyes of a black queer character.

"The Inspection" makes the distinction of being pro-troops, but not being pro-military, so you can't help but root for the recruits, striving to make something meaningful out of their lives while not being crushed by the machine. "The Inspection" can be painful to watch at times, but French's refusal to play the victim speaks loudly. His determination to survive echoes the LGBTQ community's refusal to be undermined and defeated by hate.


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