Going to war is frightening, no doubt. But surely so is the military boot camp every soldier must first endure, an endeavor that comes with extra challenges for Ellis French (Jeremy Pope), the Marine recruit at the center of writer-director Elegance Bratton’s stirring autobiographical debut, The Inspection. It is 2005 and 25-year-old Ellis has been living in a New York homeless shelter after having been kicked out of home years earlier by his mother, Inez (Gabrielle Union), for being gay.
Ellis may not have a home, but Bratton is careful to show that he has a community of queer outcasts holding him up, including Shamus (Tyler Merritt) an elder who’s heartbroken at Ellis’s decision to join the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military as a way of escaping a no-option life– being young, Black, gay, and forgotten. In telling an enlistment story, Bratton is working familiar terrain, but his attention to the nuances of Ellis and his world bring to it a new vitality, as when Ellis, in his ragged jeans, boards a metro train to go visit his mother for the first time in five years. He sits near a Black trans woman and a Black gay man, both dressed to the nines and fabulous, and both of whom shoot him looks of love and power, as if to say, “Don’t give up. You’re fabulous, too, right this very minute.”
As Inez, who is based on Bratton’s late mother, Union is revelatory, bookending the film with an intense and textured portrait of a woman so bound up in her own obsessive regret and bigotry that she can’t embrace the one person who loves her. Inez chain smokes, with the cigarette held up tight in that old-school way, as a shield from all that makes her nervous. In her apartment, with Ellis outside the front door, and later, in her car before a big event, Bratton and cinematographer Lachlan Milne (Minari) capture Inez alone, boxed in, thinking hard on what to do and how to be, as if it’s been forever since anyone knocked at her door or since she stepped out into the larger world. Inez works as a prison guard, and in her own life and spirit, there are metaphorical cells, filled with physical clutter and mental anguish.
At boot camp, Ellis has trouble keeping up with the physical demands of training but just as he’s making a breakthrough, his fellow recruits realize, in the most humiliating way possible, that he’s gay. With the tacit blessing of their training officer, Gunnery Sgt. Laws (Bookem Woodbine), three of the men beat Ellis. Buoyed by the friendship of Ismail (Eman Esfandi), a Muslim recruit suffering abuses of his own, Ellis doesn’t give up. Over time, he finds solace in the quiet support of his drill sergeant (Raúl Castillo) on whom the young recruit will develop, perhaps inevitably, a crush.
With its training montages and third act shifts of heart among the enlisted men, The Inspection has a familiar storytelling arc, but its rewards lie in the empathy and egalitarianism Bratton brings to his characters, major and minor, including his villainous sergeant and those recruits who don’t have much dialogue but who change, nevertheless. You can see it in their faces.
Pope, who was a sensation as Jackie Wilson in One Night in Miami and is revered on New York stages, is marvelously mercurial. Ellis often looks sunken and lost, but when Ismail is struggling and near collapse, Ellis rises up, growing taller in the room and within himself. No one version of this man arrives at Marine boot camp, but the best one departs.
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